The past few decades have highlighted the insidious effects of poverty, particularly for poor people who lack access to legal representation. Accordingly, there have been longstanding calls for “Civil Gideon,” which refers to a right to counsel in civil cases that would address issues tied to housing, public benefits, family issues, and various areas of law that poor people are often disadvantaged by due to their lack of attorneys. This civil right to counsel would complement the analogous criminal right that has been constitutionalized. Notwithstanding the persuasive arguments made for and against Civil Gideon, it is less clear why there is such a sharp distinction between civil and criminal legal aid. This Article re-examines longstanding assumptions about the civil-criminal legal aid divide and highlights some underexamined explanations: the legal profession’s historical implication in this division; courts’ unwillingness to use their inherent powers to appoint counsel; and courts’ enduringly narrow understandings of when poor people should be provided with lawyers. These insights prompt alternative reflections on how to best deliver legal services to poor people.
* Presidential Assistant Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania Law School. J.D., University of California, Berkeley, School of Law; Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley; M.L.A., University of Pennsylvania; B.S. Northwestern University. This Article benefitted from feedback and conversations with Guy-Uriel Charles, Scott Cummings, Anne Fleming, Trevor Gardner, Myriam Gilles, Helen Hershkoff, Olati Johnson, Steve Koh, Seth Kreimer, Serena Mayeri, K-Sue Park, Clare Pastore, Portia Pedro, Dave Pozen, Dan Richman, Louis Rulli, Kathryn Sabbeth, Matt Shapiro, Emily Stolzenberg, and Catherine Struve. Special thanks to Megan Russo and Madeline Verniero for editorial support and Alexa Nakamura, Amy Lutfi, and the Southern California Law Review staff for their overall assistance with the Article. All errors are mine.