People For the American Way

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears: Trump Judge Grasz Sets Up a Catch-22 for a Party without a Lawyer

News and Analysis
Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears: Trump Judge Grasz Sets Up a Catch-22 for a Party without a Lawyer

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. 

Eighth Circuit Trump judge Steven Grasz was the deciding vote upholding the dismissal of a prisoner’s claim that prison officials had denied him medical treatment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Essentially, the petitioner in Doering v. Kelley was punished for not being a lawyer.

Alan Doering is serving out his sentence in an Arkansas prison, where officials denied him access to Hepatitis C medication. He sued the prison pro se (meaning he didn’t have a lawyer), claiming that the denial was causing irreversible liver damage. He asked the court to provide him with counsel and a medical expert, motions that the trial court denied because Doering had filed them too early, and then a second time that was too late. The trial court judge dismissed the Hepatitis C and several other claims under a process called summary judgment: Even accepting Doering’s version of the facts as true, the judge ruled that he didn’t have a legal case.

Doering appealed to the Eighth Circuit, but he lost in a divided 2-1 ruling in which Grasz was the deciding vote. Judge Jane Kelly dissented in part. She explained that Doering had requested counsel and a medical expert to help him when he first filed his petition, not knowing that procedural rules call for those requests to be made later. She continued:

Although his second request was admittedly belated, the district court had sufficient time to consider the motion on the merits but concluded that counsel was unnecessary because the case is insufficiently complex. Yet the district court denied Doering counsel while simultaneously granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants due to Doering’s failure to rebut the medical evidence on the adequacy of his current Hepatitis C treatment—a task which, in my view, required the assistance of counsel and a medical expert.

Courts are supposed to give some leeway to parties who don’t have lawyers. Instead, Judge Grasz cast the deciding vote to trap a pro se petitioner alleging a constitutional violation in a catch-22.