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Lecates v. Justice of Peace Court No. 4 of the

decided: December 30, 1980.



Before Adams, Hunter and Higginbotham, Circuit Judges.

Author: Adams


The State of Delaware maintains a two-tier trial court system. It is comprised of courts of record, presided over by legally trained judges, and justice of the peace courts, staffed by magistrates with no legal training. An unsuccessful party in a justice of the peace court is entitled to a trial de novo in Superior Court, but a losing defendant must first post a surety bond in order to obtain such a trial. In this appeal an indigent defendant in a civil suit contends that the nonwaivable bond requirement operates to deny indigents due process of law as well as equal protection of the laws, because the poor are unable to obtain the full extent of judicial process and constitutional protections afforded more affluent litigants. The district court rejected these contentions and entered judgment for defendants. We reverse, because we conclude that Delaware's failure to permit an indigent defendant to proceed without posting a bond denies such a person due process of law.


Appellant Richard Lecates borrowed $2,400 from Sussex Trust Company, executing a promissory note for repayment in monthly installments, with his Chevrolet automobile serving as collateral. Lecates subsequently was laid-off from his job, and as a result defaulted on the monthly payments. Sussex Trust repossessed the Chevrolet and sold it for $900 under an installment sales contract. The repossession of the vehicle and its resale allegedly were consummated in violation of the Uniform Commercial Code (the UCC), in that the bank failed to notify Lecates of either the intended disposition of the collateral or the actual sale. Del.Code tit. 6, § 9-504(3). After the first purchaser failed to meet installments, Sussex Trust again repossessed and sold the car to an automobile dealer for its salvage value of $300. The second sale was also conducted without notice to Lecates.

Sussex Trust wrote to Lecates demanding payment of the deficiency of $1,860, and then instituted a civil debt action in Justice of the Peace Court No. 4 in Seaford, Delaware, seeking a judgment for $1,500.*fn1

In Delaware, justice of the peace (JP) courts, the lowest level of the judicial system, are not courts of record; proceedings are neither recorded nor accompanied by published precedential opinions. Justice of the peace courts have concurrent jurisdiction with the Superior Court and the Court of Common Pleas over debt actions involving $1,500 or less. Del.Code tit. 10, § 9301. There are significant differences in the procedural protections available to defendants in the various tribunals, however.

The JP court is a far more informal tribunal for adjudicating disputes than the courts of record, and consequently, it is often more expeditious and less expensive. Actions are commenced by filing a praecipe, which is followed by a summons served on the defendant. Del.Code tit. 10, §§ 9521-22. In the courts of record, a plaintiff must also file a complaint identifying the basis of the claim for relief, which the defendant is entitled to answer. A JP defendant may request a bill of particulars detailing the facts supporting the claim, but this is the sole discovery device permitted in the JP courts.*fn2 A full panoply of discovery procedures, including interrogatories, depositions, and requests for production of documents, is available to the parties in Superior Court and the Court of Common Pleas. There is no provision for a jury trial before a justice of the peace, J.P.Civ.R. 14, whereas in Superior Court a jury trial may be obtained upon a timely demand. Del.Code tit. 10, § 563. If a defendant in the Court of Common Pleas desires a jury, he or she simply removes the case to Superior Court, paying a small filing fee. Del.Code tit. 10, § 1320(b), (d). This filing fee is waivable for indigents. Super.Ct. Rule 112; CCP Rule 110.

Judgments entered by justice of the peace courts may be appealed to the Superior Court for a trial de novo. Del.Code tit. 10, §§ 9570, 9573, and the institution of an action in Superior Court renders the JP proceedings a nullity. If the appellant was the defendant before the justice of the peace, however, he or she must post a bond executed by a surety, which makes the surety equally liable on any judgment rendered in Superior Court. A bond may also be posted by an individual other than the appellant who owns a sufficient amount of real property. Del.Code tit. 10, §§ 9571-72. At a minimum, the value of the bond must be equal to the amount of the judgment plus costs, but it may be higher at the discretion of the magistrate. A defendant cannot satisfy the requirement by posting cash or property, because the appeal bond statute seeks to accomplish more than to protect the judgment below it is also designed to assure that any judgment entered against the appellant in excess of the bond amount will be satisfied. Trala v. Melmar Indus., Inc., 254 A.2d 249 (Del.Super.Ct.1969). The bond requirement cannot be waived by a magistrate. State ex rel. Caulk v. Nichols, 281 A.2d 24 (Del.1972). A losing plaintiff in JP court is not required to post a surety bond in order to appeal; he or she must pay only the Superior Court costs. Del.Code tit. 10, § 9571.

Appellate review of judgments entered in the Court of Common Pleas lies in the Superior Court, and is on the record rather than de novo. Del.Code tit. 10, § 1318. Superior Court decisions may be appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court. Del.Const. art. IV, § 11(1)(a).

Another major difference between the two tiers of the Delaware trial court system is the nature of the judges that preside over each tribunal. Justices of the Peace, appointed for four year terms, need not be lawyers admitted to the bar or persons trained in the law. Indeed, at least until 1976, the year of Lecates' trial, no justice of the peace had been a lawyer. Judges of the Superior Court and Court of Common Pleas, on the other hand, are required by the state constitution to have a formal legal education and to be members of the state bar. Del.Const. art. IV, § 2.

The action by Sussex Trust against Lecates was tried before Justice of the Peace Short in August, 1976. Justice Short was a new appointee, whose formal education ended at high school. Prior to his appointment he had been a state trooper, a town alderman, and a shipping clerk. Devoid of legal training, he had no knowledge of the tools of legal research or the role of precedent. On a few occasions, he had visited a law library, but simply to "browse through." His method of conducting legal research was to pose hypothetical questions to another JP or to a Common Pleas judge.

At the proceeding before Justice Short, Lecates requested a jury trial. After this request was refused, Lecates' attorney moved to dismiss the claim asserted by Sussex Trust on the ground that the bank's violations of the Uniform Commercial Code barred it from recovering a deficiency.*fn3 Justice Short, by his own admission utterly unfamiliar with the U.C.C. or the precepts of secured transactions, denied the motion and refused to entertain briefs on the legal question. Instead, he proceeded to enter judgment in favor of Sussex Trust. Denying the request that Lecates' bond be waived because of his indigency, on the ground that he had no power to do so, Justice Short set the bond at $1,500.

Lecates' indigency is well-established. From May through October of 1976, Lecates' only income was $25-30 per week. His family relied on food stamps and the Salvation Army for the basic necessities of life. Lecates had no collateral to post for a bond, because he was already delinquent on house and car payments, and he had to sell many items of furniture to meet utility and other bills. By reason of his indigency*fn4 Lecates was unsuccessful in his efforts to secure a surety bond. Of the ten agencies approached, some declined to act as surety because they did not issue bonds for JP appeals, and others refused because Lecates lacked funds or any other assets to guarantee payment. Consequently, Lecates was unable to obtain a trial by jury presided over by a lawyer-judge in the Superior Court.

Lecates then filed this action for injunctive and declaratory relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting that the surety bond requirement deprived him, a pauper, of due process by foreclosing access to the regular court system. He also contended that the bond requirement violated his right to equal protection because similarly situated indigent defendants in the courts of record automatically received the full extent of procedural protections.

The district court dismissed Lecates' claims, concluding that it was bound by the Supreme Court's summary disposition in 1972 of State ex rel. Caulk v. Nichols,*fn5 a case in which the Delaware Supreme Court rejected an equal protection challenge to the identical Delaware statute. Determining, however, that the United States Supreme Court in Caulk had not considered one of the precise equal protection issues framed by Lecates, the district court proceeded to evaluate Lecates' claim that his treatment was dissimilar to that accorded indigent civil defendants sued in the courts of record. After a one-day non-jury trial, the district court found no denial of equal protection, ascertaining that Delaware had a rational basis for the surety bond requirement. This appeal followed.


It is necessary to determine at the outset of our analysis whether we are precluded from examining the merits of Lecates' contentions by virtue of the doctrine of Hicks v. Miranda, 422 U.S. 332, 95 S. Ct. 2281, 45 L. Ed. 2d 223 (1975). In Hicks the Supreme Court admonished that, absent supervening doctrinal developments, a summary affirmance or dismissal for want of a substantial federal question must be regarded as a disposition on the merits. The rationale for treating them as such is that the Supreme Court's jurisdiction over appeals from state courts is obligatory, and the Court therefore has no discretion to decline adjudicating the merits. Id. at 344, 95 S. Ct. at 2289. Justice White, writing for the Court, indicated, however, that lower courts would be bound only to the extent that the issues in the previous case were sufficiently the same to warrant treating it as a controlling precedent. He recognized further that ascertaining the content of summary dispositions would be no easy task.

From its inception, the rule of construction announced in Hicks v. Miranda appeared somewhat vulnerable, as criticism both from within the Court and from scholarly commentators*fn6 was forcefully expressed. Justice Brennan argued that summary dispositions should not be accorded conclusive weight, because in practice such dispositions frequently received little more reasoned consideration than certiorari denials.*fn7 He, along with Chief Justice Burger, suggested that summary dispositions should be treated as affirmances only of the judgment, and not the reasoning of the lower court.*fn8 As the Supreme Court grappled with applying Hicks and ascertaining the implicit reach of summary dispositions, it began to qualify, by way of explaining, its strict edict that summary dispositions are completely conclusive of similar cases.*fn9 In Mandel v. Bradley, 432 U.S. 173, 97 S. Ct. 2238, 53 L. Ed. 2d 199 (1977), the full Court finally embraced the position that had been advanced by Chief Justice Burger and Justice Brennan, and held that summary affirmances approve the result, but not necessarily the reasoning, of the decision under appeal. The Court instructed lower courts (1) to scrutinize the particular facts and the jurisdictional statement of a case that was summarily disposed of to determine the "precise issues presented and necessarily decided" by the summary action, and (2) to give conclusive effect only to these narrow questions. Id. at 176, 97 S. Ct. at 2240.*fn10

Doubts remained, however, whether issues "necessarily decided" included arguments that could be inferred from a petitioner's more explicit contentions. These doubts were resolved in Illinois State Board of Elections v. Socialist Workers Party, 440 U.S. 173, 99 S. Ct. 983, 59 L. Ed. 2d 230 (1979), in which the Court expanded Mandel, and made it clear that lower courts have leeway to consider the merits of cases within the confines of the Hicks doctrine. Specifically, Justice Marshall held that lower courts are foreclosed from re-examining only the exact question formally made part of the jurisdictional statement in a case receiving summary treatment; no opinion on the merits of issues that "merely lurk in the record" may be inferred from a summary disposition. Id. at 182-83.

Washington v. Confederated Bands and Tribes of the Yakima Indian Nation, 439 U.S. 463, 99 S. Ct. 740, 58 L. Ed. 2d 740 (1979), which the dissent relies on to argue that Illinois State Board of Elections did not qualify the Hicks doctrine, was actually decided prior to Illinois State Board. The discussion of Hicks in Yakima Indian Nation, was relegated to a footnote and was subsidiary to the central issues in the case, whereas in Illinois State Board the Court focused far more attention on the treatment to be accorded summary dispositions. Consequently, the more recent and more considered discussion of the Hicks doctrine in Illinois State Board would appear to be a sounder indication of the Supreme Court's thinking on the question of the precedential effect of summary dispositions. Moreover, when the discussion in Yakima Indian Nation is read in full, it is apparent that, similar to Mandel and Illinois State Board, it also limits the broad implications of the statements in Hicks :

Our summary dismissals are, of course, to be taken as rulings on the merits, Hicks v. Miranda, 422 U.S. 332, 343-345 (95 S. Ct. 2281, 2288-2289, 45 L. Ed. 2d 223) in the sense that they rejected the "specific challenges presented in the statement of jurisdiction" and left "undisturbed the judgment appealed from." Mandel v. Bradley, 432 U.S. 173, 176 (97 S. Ct. 2238, 2240, 53 L. Ed. 2d 199). They do not, however, have the same precedential value here as does an opinion of this Court after briefing and oral argument on the merits, Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 670-671 (94 S. Ct. 1347, 1359, 39 L. Ed. 2d 662); Richardson v. Ramirez, 418 U.S. 24, 53 (94 S. Ct. 2655, 2670, 41 L. Ed. 2d 551). A summary dismissal of an appeal represents no more than a view that the judgment appealed from was correct as to those federal questions raised and necessary to the decision. It does not, as we have continued to stress, see, e.g., Mandel v. Bradley, supra, necessarily reflect our agreement with the opinion of the court whose judgment is appealed. It is not at all unusual for the Court to find it appropriate to give full consideration to a question that has been the subject of previous summary action.

439 U.S. at 477, n.20, 99 S. Ct. at 749.

We recount this history of the eventual evolution away from a strict application of the Hicks v. Miranda rule to demonstrate that lower courts are not absolutely precluded from considering the merits of contentions that are similar to issues raised in a summarily affirmed case. In short, under Mandel and Illinois State Board, the precedential value of a summary disposition by the Supreme Court is to be confined to the exact facts of the case and to the precise question posed in the jurisdictional statement. Furthermore, indications that there have been doctrinal developments since the summary action will relieve a lower court from the duty to adhere to a summary disposition.

This is not to suggest that summary dispositions may be disregarded or should have little weight. On the contrary, in those situations where a summary disposition is applicable, it is a binding precedent. The recent Supreme Court explanations indicate, however, that we must ascertain carefully whether a summary affirmance or dismissal does indeed apply in a subsequent case. And it is precisely this exercise which engages us in the present situation.

The dissent argues that only the Supreme Court may pursue the sort of examination we undertake here. Typescript at p. 31. As the previous discussion of these cases indicates, however, in Mandel and Illinois State Board it was clear that the Supreme Court was establishing guidelines by which lower courts may evaluate the precedential reach of summary dispositions. See, e.g., 432 U.S. at 179-80, 97 S. Ct. at 2242 (Brennan, J. concurring). For example, in Mandel the Court reversed the lower court for rigidly relying on a previous summary affirmance without the sort of examination pursued here: "Because of its preoccupation with Salera, the District Court failed to undertake an independent examination of the merits." Id. at 177, 97 S. Ct. at 2241. The Supreme Court went on to explain the treatment lower courts should accord summary dispositions. In Illinois State Board the Supreme Court agreed with the conclusion of a lower court that a prior summary affirmance was not binding. The Supreme Court echoed the conclusion of the lower court that the equal protection issue in the current ...

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