Judges to Santa Clara County Clerk's Office: Do Your Job

By Robyn Hagan Cain on December 15, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

If you've ever filed your own petition or motion, you know the cardinal rule of courthouse decorum: Don't irk the clerk.

The court clerk's office is a fountain of information, and particularly helpful to neophyte attorneys who are learning to navigate the logistics of lawyering, but clerks are still human. They make mistakes. And Sixth Appellate District Court judges will scold clerks, just as they do attorneys, when those mistakes interfere with a case.

Edward Voit, a prisoner, is being sued in respondent Santa Clara County Superior Court. Voit sent the court an "Exparte Motion for Request for the Appointment of Counsel for Defendant" [sic] for filing, asking the court to appoint counsel to represent him in the civil case because he is incarcerated and indigent. The court clerk's office rejected the filing on the ground that Voit had not enclosed a filing fee, and returned the document to Voit with a fee waiver form.

After presumably completing the waiver, the clerk's office sent Voit a second civil filing rejection letter that stated in relevant part, "Hearing date must be reserved prior to filing motions. However, the civil court does not appoint counsel." Voit again asked the court to reserve his hearing date, and received a third letter explaining that he needed to find his own attorney because the court does not set hearings for counsel appointment in civil matters.

Voit sent yet another letter explaining to the court that there was precedent to appoint counsel in civil matters to inmates suffering from mental disabilities, and asked for a ruling on that precedent's impact on his case. The clerk refused, demanding a citation to Voit's alleged precedent for further consideration.

Finally, Voit asked the Sixth Appellate District Court to intervene.

The appellate court was troubled by the court clerk's stubborn refusal to file Voit's motions, because one of the basic duties of the court clerk's office is to file motions; judges, by contrast, are tasked with determining whether a litigant's motion has merit.

The Sixth Appellate district noted that the clerk's office has a ministerial duty to file documents that comply with the rules of the court. If the document contains defects, the clerk's office should file it and notify the party that the defect should be corrected. Adding fuel to Voit's I-told-you-so fire, the appellate court also pointed out that a 1976 decision, Payne v. Superior Court, established precedent allowing courts to appoint counsel for indigent inmates facing civil suits.

While we still believe in the "don't irk the clerk" theory, don't be a pushover either. If you think that the court clerk's office is improperly refusing to file your petition or motion, don't be afraid to ask the court to resolve the matter.

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