Before beginning arguments over the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act Wednesday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion unanimously siding with a prisoner who filed a handwritten appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court without a lawyer.
Inmate Kim Millbrook is known for being litigious, and has lost several of his previous cases. But his perseverence and experience with the legal system has paid off. In an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court interpreted government immunity narrowly, paving the way for many other prisoners and litigants alleging law enforcement misconduct to hold government officials accountable. It is not often that the U.S. Supreme Court takes a case filed without a lawyer. And as the New York Times’ Adam Liptak noted recently, Millbrook’s case comes on the 50th anniversary of the landmark case establishing the right to counsel, Gideon v. Wainright. Petitioner Clarence Gideon, who was also ensnared in the criminal justice system, filed a handwritten appeal on his own, and went on to set groundbreaking precedent with the help of some of the most prominent lawyers of his time.
Millbrook’s case was one of two cases the high court agreed to hear this term filed without a lawyer — a highly unusual scenario. Even more encouraging, both cases sought to challenge government attempts to insulate officials from claims of wrongdoing. In an era when justice is often viewed as synonymous with access to expensive legal representation, today’s decision is a rare win for equal access to justice (even as another U.S. Supreme Court decision decided Wednesday morning contracts access). And in a country whose prison population eclipses that of every other country in the world, it is particularly crucial that inmates are at the very least able to challenge their treatment.