Alex Reinert never expected his prisoner rights case – his client was a post 9/1 1 Muslim detainee – to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
And when it did, he certainly never expected to lose a 5-4 decision that would later be hailed as a landmark ruling.
Reinert acknowledged disappointment at ultimately losing Ashcroft v. Igbal but, during an appearance in Buffalo Friday, suggested there also was satisfaction in how it changed the legal landscape.
"It was an amazing job, and I was lucky to have it," Reinert said of the case that returned him to the court where he once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer.
Reinert, now an associate professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, used the Igbal case to show why private attorneys should get involved in pro se civil rights cases. Pro se occurs when a person advocates on his or her own behalf rather than being represented by a lawyer.
He was one of several speakers, including three federal court judges, who encouraged the local legal community to increase its involvement in pro se lawsuits, especially those involving inmates.
The alternative, they suggested, is the possibility that meritorious cases might get short shrift by the courts.
"There may be a kernel there, a diamond in the rough," said U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy.
Javaid Iqbal, a cable TV worker on Long Island, was one of hundreds of Muslim men rounded up after the Sept. 11 attacks and eventually deported.
Igbal later sued then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, claiming they were responsible for policies that resulted in the discrimination and abuse he suffered at a Brooklyn detention center.
In his suit, Iqbal claimed he was denied medical care, kept in solitary confinement and subjected to beatings. He won in the lower courts but lost when his case reached the nation's highest court.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott said judges everywhere worry about pro se civil cases that have merit but lack a lawyer with the experience and skills to bring about justice.
"It's cases like that that we worry about," Scott said. "We don't want those cases to slip through the cracks."
Scott spoke about the importance of access to the courts and how everyone suffers when people who are harmed, even prisoners, are denied that right.
As part of their plea to local lawyers, the judges suggested that more of them need to devote time and energy to pro se cases because of the backlog of cases in Buffalo federal court.
"We hope you'll find it in your heart, in your professional commitment," Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny told the roomful of lawyers. "We have nowhere else to go. We need you to get these cases through the system."
Skretny said pro se civil cases represent about one out of every three civil cases in Buffalo federal court.