The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the government could be sued for alleged abuse by guards in federal prisons.
The case is remarkable not necessarily for the ruling it produced, but for how it got to the court in the first place.
Without the aid of a lawyer, an inmate at a federal prison in Pennsylvania, Kim Millbrook, submitted his own handwritten petition to the court. In an unusual move, the court agreed to hear the case, as well as one other case brought by a lawyerless plaintiff. That the court would hear two such cases was "unheard of," according to a lawyer quoted by the Associated Press.
The case stems from a lawsuit Millbrook filed against the federal government in which he accused three prison guards of sexually assaulting him in 2010. Lower courts dismissed that lawsuit for lack of standing, saying that the Federal Torts Claim Act protects the government from such lawsuits.
However the Supreme Court, after accepting his case and assigning Millbrook a lawyer, unanimously overturned those rulings. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing the court's opinion, said the lower courts hard erred in thinking the FTCA provided legal immunity to law enforcement officers for all actions except searches and arrests. According to the high court, the law did not offer such broad immunity.
Millbrook has a long history of jailhouse litigiousness. According to the New York Times, he's done time in four corrections facilities, and has sued every one of them. In one case, a judge warned him that he could face a fine if he continued to "file frivolous papers" in court.
So why did the Supreme Court, which hears less than one percent of the estimated 10,000 petitions it receives annually, decide to accept Millbrook's case? It's likely they were trying to settle a long-running question over when federal officers can be sued. Lower courts have previously disagreed over the issue, and Millbrook's case gave them a prime chance to finally offer some clarity.
Neither case seems destined to join the ranks of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark 1960s case filed by a prisoner with no lawyer that established a criminal defendant's right to a lawyer. Both show, however, that when the court is looking to resolve finicky legal issues and the right case shows up, it doesn't matter whether the author of the appeal wears a natty suit or prison garb. [AP]