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San Francisco acts to assure equal access to the courts for the poor

September 21, 2013

Testing Civil Gideon

by Mike Rosen | June 2012

illustration by Phil Foster

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A city ordinance signed by Mayor Ed Lee in early April has made San Francisco the first city in the nation to create a guaranteed right to civil counsel. Although the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a right to legal representation in criminal matters in the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright (372 U.S. 335 (1963)), no such corresponding right exists in the civil arena, despite what some see as a greater need for it. 

“You cannot have a more compelling cause than child custody or shelter for family,” says Robert Rubin, former litigation director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. Rubin brought the proposal to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last fall, together with Shearman & Sterling partner James J. Donato and Morrison & Foerster partner James J. Brosnahan. Rubin argues that while rights threatened in civil court go unprotected by counsel, “You would get a lawyer if you were facing six months of probation for stealing a magazine.” 

The ordinance, passed in March by the Board of Supervisors, authorizes a one

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