Amanda Goudie, whose formal education ended when she dropped out of high school more years ago than she cares to remember, today donned a black imitation judge's robe and a religious medal bearing the inscription "It's possible," and went before members of Virginia's Supreme Court.
Earlier this month Goudie's aging white clapboard house in South Arlington was sold out from under her after she fell $500 behind in loan payments. Today, after having been frustrated in Northern Virginia's courts, she went before a panel of the state's highest court, arguing that she should not be forced from the house until she gets her share of funds from the foreclosure sale.
It wasn't the first time that the self-professed "frustrated lawyer" who reads the Constitution for kicks has been in a court room.
In the 1960s, she went into the District of Columbia courts, challenging the giant Sears Roebuck and Co. over a faulty air conditioner. After several years in the courts, she won $10,000 in damages.
A few years later when Arlington officials challenged her over the eight chickens kept in the yard of her Crystal City home, Goudie went back to court and won the right to keep the chickens.
Today, after suffering two heart attacks and plunging deeply in debt, the former nightclub singer returned to the courtroom for what has become the most difficult legal fight of her litigious career.
The procedural problems she encountered here today illustrated dramatically the difficulties of a litigant acting as her own lawyer in a state with an entrenched legal establishment. An individual who acts as her own lawyer tends to have less than 1 chance in 100 of winning, according to state and national legal authorities.
"It just doesn't seem sensible" for a layman to represent himself in an appellate court, said Virginia Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman, himself a product of the state's lawyer-dominated General Assembly. "To me, it would be like conducting surgery without being a doctor. I'm sure there are cases where someone performs surgery on himself successfully, but they don't happen (to do it) very often."
Today was not one of those cases, and Goudie, who once ran a Georgetown coffee shop, clearly was not one of those people Coleman had in mind.
Justices Harry L. Carrico, A. Christian Compton and Richard H. Poff, while promising to review Goudie's case, told her that they had no jurisdiction over many of the aspects of the case she raised. She had failed to exhaust her legal options at the lower court level, they said.
"Once you've taken the matter to the Circuit Court and you're still aggrieved, then you're able to bring it to us," said Compton.
Goudie was undaunted by the judges' comments and said later she remained optimistic on the chances for a favorable decision. Legal experts, however, say that it is just such procedural difficulties that most often stymie the layman in the courts.
"The majority of them are not versed in court procedure, and they create more problems than anything else," said Allen Lucy, clerk of the Virginia Supreme Court, who estimates that court hears between 18 and 25 such cases a year. "We just about have to take them by the hand and lead them through it.
"When one of them comes in, the first thing you do is cringe and say something under your breath. And then you go ahead and help them," he said.
Lucy said many of the people acting as their own lawyers tend to be people who might be better off seeking psychological help rather than legal redress. "They all think there's a conspiracy against them," he said, "but when you get into the case, you find they really don't have a leg to stand on."
Goudie, a feisty woman who punctuates her conversation with obscenities, says her weak heart makes it impossible for her to work and with a total monthly income of $300 from insurance benefits, she says she cannot afford to retain a lawyer.
"I know that pro se litigants (nonlawyers who act as their own attorney) are the lowest form of life in a courtroom, but what else could I do?" says Goudie. "You don't stop having rights just because you're broke."
According to Goudie, her troubles began last winter when she fell behind in payments on two of three loans totaling $70,000. Although she says she planned to sell her house at 1935 S. Arlington Ridge Rd. to cover the debts, an Arlington law firm representing the holders of one of Goudie's loans foreclosed.
It was then that she went to court, claiming that lawyers Mary Cook Hackman and Amanda R. Ellis were violating her constitutional rights by attempting to evict her from the house before paying her $27,000 that was supposed to be her share of the foreclosure sale proceeds.
"It's a Catch-22," Goudie says."I can't move out without money to pay the movers, bu they (the lawyers) won't give me the money."
Hackman and Ellis told members of the Virginia court, however, that the delay was caused by their efforts to assure that there were no other claims against the property. The payment procedure would have been carried out more quickly, they said, were it not for Goudie's amateur attempts at practicing law, including two other hearings before the Arlington County Circuit Court.
In this country, civil cases like Goudie's compose only a tiny minority of those brought to court by laymen. An estimated 90 to 95 percent of the total are brought by prisoners, according to Alvin Bronstein, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's national prison project. He says that while the prospects for such cases are improving across the country, on the whole they are still "pretty grim."
"Less than 1 percent of them ever win, and most of them never even get a hearing on the merits," Bronstein says. "They tend to get thrown out on procedural grounds -- someone submitted the wrong forms, or the wrong number of copies, or didn't send copies to the right people."
The root of the problem is an attitude by lawyers and judges that "the law is special and mystical and lay people shouldn't screw around with it," Bronstein, a lawyer said.