Supreme Court Grants Prisoner's Longshot, Handwritten Petition

By Deanne Katz, Esq. on October 22, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

If you need more proof that determination pays off look no further than Kim Millbrook, an inmate in a federal prison in Pennsylvania, whose handwritten petition was granted certiorari by the Supreme Court.

That means his complaint is one of the few selected to be heard by the court, an honor that many immaculately typed petitions don't receive.

In his 31-years in prison Millbrook has filed many lawsuits but none have been successful. The one accepted by the court concerns a fairly technical legal matter but his petition likely wouldn't have been accepted without some unlikely assistance.

Millbrook's petition stems from a lawsuit over an alleged sexual assault that happened to him while he was an inmate at a prison in Lewisburg, PA. The original suit was dismissed based on sovereign immunity of the prison without considering the merits of Millbrook's claim.

By the time the case trickled up to the Supreme Court, the sovereign immunity issue was no longer the subject of the case. But the opposing party named in the petition, the United States solicitor general's office, alerted the court that it was still an issue, according to The New York Times.

The idea of sovereign immunity protects the government from being sued with its consent.

In practice that means state and federal laws have carved out certain areas where a citizen can sue the government but in other areas such suits are not permitted. The issue in this case, brought up by the solicitor general's office and not Millbrook, concerns an exception to the rule.

The exception is interpreted differently by lower courts which explains why the Supreme Court decided to hear the case.

When there is disagreement on a law's interpretation, the Court is the supreme arbiter. Once a Supreme Court decision is made, it's binding on all lower courts.

Even with the assistance from the solicitor general's office, Millbrook's cert. grant is unique. The last time a handwritten petition was granted by the Supreme Court was 50 years ago, reports The New York Times.

That case, Gideon v. Wainwright, was a landmark decision that shaped our current notion of the right to effective assistance of counsel. It sets a high standard for Millbrook's case which will be heard by the Supreme Court this term.

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