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Pro Se: Representing Yourself in Court

Pro Se is a legal term that comes from Latin, meaning ‘for oneself’. It essentially means that you are representing yourself in court by choice without the help of an attorney. In the United States’ legal system, every individual is guaranteed, by the sixth amendment, the right to an appointed counsel, and also the right to represent him or herself in court. People may choose to represent themselves in court for a variety of reasons, including: avoiding the expense of hiring a lawyer, for smaller cases, the matter is often simple enough that the individual can take care of it them self, and many individuals believe they know their own situation better than a lawyer, and therefore are in a better position to handle a case.

In landmark cases, the Supreme Court set standards for pro se cases, which include boundaries for not only those individuals who choose to represent themselves, but also for the standby counsel in these particular cases.

  • In Faretta v. California (1975), the Supreme Court ruled that the defendant, Anthony Faretta, had the constitutional right to refuse legal counsel and to represent himself in a state criminal trial. This case set the standards for pro se cases following it by upholding the constitutional right of an individual to represent him or herself in court. However, the Court also ruled that a defendant who voluntarily self-represents him or herself in court may not argue after the proceedings that they received ineffective counsel.
  • In Mckaskle v. Wiggins (1984), the Supreme Court considered what the role of ‘standby counsel’ should be in pro se criminal cases. According to the Court, Wiggins’s sixth amendment right had not been violated by the presence of a standby counsel at his criminal trial, as he was still able to defend himself in any way he saw fit. This case established limits on the role of the standby counsel in pro se trials by refining standards that were set by Faretta.
  • In Martinez v. Court of Appeal in California (2000), the Supreme Court ruled that an appellant who was the defendant of a state criminal case does not have the right to refuse the counsel of an attorney in a court of appeals; this ruling contrasts with the decision in the Faretta v. California case. The opinion of the Court was that the sixth amendment only extended to the defendant’s right to self-representation in criminal and civil cases, and that there is no such right in a court of appeals.

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