Why the Supreme Court Agreed to Hear an Inmate's Handwritten Petition

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The new Supreme Court term begins next Monday and Court watchers are already sizing up the cases that they plan to hear, including one with a rather unusual approach to lawyering. On Tuesday, the Court agreed to hear the petition of Millbrook v. United Statesinvolving a federal prison inmate who sued after claiming he was raped by three guards. The unusual part is that Millbrook doesn't have a lawyer, has been warned previously about filing frivolous lawsuits, and his petition was written by hand on lined legal paper.

According to McClatchy Newspapers, the Supreme Court receives about 9,000 petitions every term. From those, the Justices pick maybe 75 to actually be given a public hearing. In a good year, one of those cases might belong to a prisoner who filed on his or her own behalf. Most of those at least had access to a typewriter. Yet, in an even odder twist, the Court not only agreed to hear Millbrook, but they also accepted the case of Matthew Descamps, another inmate in the exact same Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, prison here Millbrook is serving his sentence. Two prisoners, with no legal training and a habit of wasting the time of lower courts, will both get their day in front of the Supremes.

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Unfortunately for Millbrook, no matter the Court decides it won't have any effect on his sentence or even on the assault claim that prompted his lawsuit. (The prison investigated his claim of abuse, but rejected his allegations.) The case was accepted only to address an important legal point that needs some clarification: Under what circumstances can a federal prison guard be sued? As a general rule, federal law enforcement officers cannot be sued for actions preformed in the line of duty, but two lower courts have disagreed on where the exceptions to that rule lie. So the Supreme Court has decided to settle the matter. Millbrook may not be much of a lawyer—the court will appoint someone else to handle the oral arguments—but his handwritten complaint was just interesting enough that could shape the future of federal law.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.