Vermont Supreme Court Upholds Rights of Jailhouse Lawyers

Vermont Supreme Court Upholds Rights of Jailhouse Lawyers

In a unanimous and lengthy opinion, the Vermont Supreme Court dismissed a charge of unauthorized practice of law brought against a jailhouse lawyer.

Martin Serendipity Morales, a prisoner who identifies as female, was being held at the Marble Valley Regional Correctional Center when she was charged with a felony by Bennington County prosecutors. Her crime? Helping other prisoners prepare legal documents for use in court proceedings.

“The unauthorized practice of law is punished as criminal contempt of the Vermont Supreme Court,” said Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell. Morales was charged under Vt. Stat. Ann. title 4, § 901.

The right to practice law is generally restricted to licensed attorneys. But prisoners have their own rights, established in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Bounds v. Smith, 97 S.Ct. 1491 (1977), though as limited in Lewis v. Casey, 116 S.Ct. 2174 (1996). In Bounds, the justices held that prisoners have a constitutional right of access to the courts. Courts have consistently interpreted that right to include the assistance of fellow prisoners with legal matters.

The zealous prosecutors in Bennington County, however, did not appreciate jailhouse lawyers helping other prisoners. In a memorandum in support of the charges against Morales, prosecutors argued that her provision of assistance to five other prisoners constituted the unauthorized practice of law.

“Defendant has repeatedly and consistently practiced law by reviewing cases, researching issues, and drafting motions for inmates already represented by counsel,” wrote Deputy State’s Attorney Alexander Burke.

Emily Tredeau, an attorney with the Prisoners’ Rights Office, pointed to an obvious problem with the state’s argument: It is perfectly legal to review and research cases.

“If preparing documents and contracts is practicing law without a license,” said Tredeau, “then the state has an unprosecuted epidemic of unauthorized practice.”

The Vermont Supreme Court agreed, concluding that Morales’ actions did not amount to the unauthorized practice of law.

“Individuals in prison with some legal knowledge have, for years, frequently helped less sophisticated inmates with legal matters, usually without facing prosecution for the unauthorized practice of law,” Justice Beth Robinson wrote in the 15-page ruling. “Many important prisoners’ rights cases were initially filed by prisoners who were not represented by lawyers.”

During oral argument in the case, Associate Justice Harold E. Eaton, Jr. also noted the practical benefits that result from services provided by jailhouse lawyers.

“I would much rather someone with a little knowledge help a pro se defendant rather than getting the filing on an envelope,” he said.

“The State does not allege that Morales ever signed pleadings on behalf of the other inmates, held herself out as a licensed attorney, or received any payment for her services,” the Vermont Supreme Court wrote in its ruling.

“In light of the above considerations, we conclude that the specific conduct alleged by the State – that Morales gave legal advice to and drafted motions for fellow inmates – does not amount to the unauthorized practice of law and contempt against this Court.”

However, the Supreme Court specified that “We do not decide whether an inmate who receives compensation for providing similar legal help is engaged in the unauthorized practice of law… Similarly, we do not hold that an inmate may sign and file pleadings on behalf of another.”

See: In re Morales, 2016 VT 85, 151 A.3d 333 (Vt. 2016).

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Originally published in Prison Legal News on December 5, 2017.