Just when you think you’ve made history – some “better than thou” Attorney General steps up to put you back down again. Any surprise that this is coming from South Carolina. Somehow I don’t see that as a tolerant state – at least not for Michael Ray!
Michael Ray – not a household name – is a federal inmate in the State of South Carolina. What is significant about Mr. Ray – he helped fellow inmate Lavon Burgess appeal his conviction for possession of crack cocaine with the intent to distribute. O.K., so Ray is a “jailhouse lawyer” – not a lawyer by license, but a lay person who has a knack for the law.
Oh, but there’s more! The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear on March 24, the appeal where Burgess is arguing that a prior drug conviction prosecutors used to get him the 20-year minimum prison sentence shouldn’t have applied because it was a misdemeanor instead of a felony. Conflicting court rulings have required 10-year sentences for people already convicted of misdemeanors, so a successful appeal could trim Burgess’ sentence in half.
Stop! So let this sink in – a 29 cent an hour felon who is a member of the American Bar Association and a certified paralegal, helped another inmate file an appeal that is being heard by the United States Supreme Court! Is that cool or what?
Stanford University law professor Jeff Fisher will argue Burgess’ case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Legal experts estimate the high court agrees to hear less than 1 percent of the thousands of cases it receives each year.
Now, according to Rauch Wise, a South Carolina lawyer who represents Ray, the authorities are looking into whether Ray is guilty of unauthorized practice, a crime that carries up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine. South Carolina’s Attorney General Henry McMaster is investigating Ray for practicing law without a license.
Sorry, but McMaster is just wrong – both legally and ethically!
Federal Bureau of Prison regulations state, “an inmate may assist another inmate … with legal research and the preparation of legal documents for submission to a court or other judicial body.” And in his letters, Ray cited a U.S. Supreme Court case he said illustrated rights bestowed upon prison law clerks.
In Johnson v. Avery, the court in 1969 sided with a Tennessee prisoner who argued he had been improperly disciplined for helping another inmate prepare legal documents, ruling that prison officials could not deprive prisoners of such assistance.
A September Ohio Supreme Court decision could foreshadow Ray’s fate, said Michael Frisch, ethics counsel and adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center. The justices narrowly upheld an inmate’s right to draft legal documents for other prisoners because there was no “reasonable alternative” to their services.
As an ethics speaker, I am not proud of my past – I did spend time in federal prison – and if it were not for prison “jailhouse” lawyers, many would have no chance at any reasonable legal representation. Not that all jailhouse lawyers are good, but how, otherwise, would an inmate gain protection of their rights?
Oh…stop. I can hear some saying…what rights? Inmates are inmates and have no rights! Right? Wrong!
What if Burgess is overturned…then with Ray’s help many will find that they will have reduced sentences based on the opinion of the highest court in the land.
My suggestion…leave Ray alone and give him the benefit of seeing where this Supreme Court ruling lands.