South Carolina Moves Against Successful Jail House Lawyer While Allowing Unsuccessful Bar Applicants to Become Lawyers

Michael Ray, a federal inmate, could rightfully claim some confusion. A “jailhouse lawyer,” Ray convinced the United States Supreme Court to accept an important prisoner case this term — an achievement unmatched by the vast majority of practicing lawyers. Now, however, the South Carolina State Attorney General is reportedly investigating Ray for possible charges of practicing without a license. What is particularly curious is that this is the same state that recently admitted well-connected applicants for the bar after they flunked the exam. South Carolina appears to have entered some parallel universe where success in the law is failure while failure in the law is success.

Ray’s assistance was enlisted by inmate Keith Lavon Burgess who wanted to appeal his conviction for possession of crack cocaine with the intent to distribute. Ray argued that the 20-year minimum sentence was wrongly applied because it was a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

Ray is a certified paralegal and a member of the American Bar Association.

He could receive two years additional time for practicing without a license — above the time he is serving for fraud.

State prosecutors apparently take great exception to inmates who succeed in their efforts to seek legal relief. For that matter, success as a lawyer in South Carolina appears to be completely immaterial to one’s advancement. Recently, the South Carolina Supreme Court ordered that the bar allow 20 individuals to be sworn in as lawyers despite the fact that they failed the bar exam and thus could not prove that they were competent to represent clients. To make matters worse, two of those people were the daughters of two powerful bar members: S.C. House Judiciary Committee chairman Jim Harrison, R-Richland, and longtime Circuit Judge Paul Burch of Pageland. Both men admit that they contacted court officials after learning that their daughters had flunked. For that story, click here.

Thus, it seems that if Ray simply takes and fails the South Carolina bar examination, he will be welcomed with open arms by the bar. It is his success as an advocate that proved his undoing. Fortunately, the South Carolina Attorney General was quick to spot the problem and will soon correct the intrusion of such competence before it spreads uncontrollably throughout the state.

For the full story, click here

9 thoughts on “South Carolina Moves Against Successful Jail House Lawyer While Allowing Unsuccessful Bar Applicants to Become Lawyers”

  1. Mespo, I’m also a VA resident, and I remember the VA Tech tragedy very well indeed. I share your concerns about too many guns in the wrong hands, and how easy it is to get them.

    I am also concerned how easy it has become to turn what are completely harmless activities into “crimes” these days because some lawmakers (or their constituents) disapprove of those activities and make nonsensical laws against them. A citizen who is unjustly accused of one of those activities could easily become a criminal defendant and then a “felon” because he/she didn’t have a good attorney to fight such a bogus charge.

  2. Susan: What changes the law here are economic interests. In Virginia, we can’t even require purchasers of firearms at gun shows to have an instant background check, all because the NRA (i.e. gun manufacturers) and the gun shops continually keep the pressure on our legislators. In might seem normal, but we just suffered the largest mass shooting of college kids in our Nation’s history. Cataclysmic events have little effect on our legislature, but cash always talks.

  3. Mespo, sadly I’ve come to believe there is NO justice in the South. And this is coming from someone who once used to believe in the fairness of our criminal justice system, all across the country. I realize now what a naive belief that was. This is why I now believe every citizen who isn’t a lawyer needs to educate himself or herself about the law in general and criminal justice in particular, as much as they possibly can, by reading the books that are currently available in either our bookstores and public libraries.

    Please understand, JT, Mespo, Deeply, PattyC, and everyone here who is a lawyer and/or law professor; I am NOT disrespecting lawyers in any way. Not the really excellent ones like you folks all are anyway. I have tremendous respect and admiration for the hard work you do, and which is often thankless.

    The problem is that there aren’t enough of the stellar attorneys like yourselves out there to take all the criminal cases that come up. And as JT often reminds us, there are too many lawmakers who want to make “crimes” out of activities that have caused NO harm, injury or property deprivation to anyone. How does ANYONE keep up with some of the more ridiculous new “crime” statutes that are constantly being made so politicians can appear to be “doing something” to justify staying in office.

    By “arming” ourselves with as much knowledge as we can, we can help ourselves more in the event that the terrible misfortune of being unjustly accused of a crime should ever happen to us. Of course, we hope that never happens, but we have no guarantees that it won’t. And if it ever does, I’d much rather be knowledgeable and prepared than clueless, panicked and confused.

  4. Susan: yep Rule 1:1 makes a judgment final in the Commonwealth and denies lots of justice. We get to appeal to the Governor for relief and our Supreme Court thinks that’s a fair alternative. The Court can suspend execution of the sentence while you appeal, but that is not a common occurrence either. You have to love justice in the South.

  5. JT, thank you! That is exactly what I thought to be the case. But I have it on good authority that there are some officials, particularly in the corrections community, that heavily frown on any inmate effectively assist himself or others, even when these inmates make it plain they are not attorneys and are not attempting to pass themselves off as such. Especially if the inmate(s) know the law — by researching it on their own — a little TOO well. Thanks again.

  6. Mespo, not even being an attorney, I couldn’t even begin to answer your question from a legal standpoint. But I don’t think this mindset against legal representation before or after conviction is entirely confined to South Carolina.

    In VA, we still have that insane — and in my view, totally unjust — 21-day rule which says NO new evidence can be presented that could exonerate a possibly wrongfully-convicted defendant. Isn’t that correct? And I understand that the rule in TX is 30 days, which is only marginally better. Aren’t there states out West and in other parts of the country that would probably love to see the right to ANY kind of legal defense for criminal defendants removed? You would know this far better than I do.

  7. Susan:
    You have a constitutional right to represent yourself, so that is not a fair basis for the charge. Moreover, as long as you do not hold out yourself as a lawyer or attempt to file as a lawyer, you are allowed to assist others. Thus, you are allowed to discuss cases and suggest arguments so long as you do not offer “legal advice” as an attorney.

  8. JT, just a devil’s advocate question; do you think this SC Attorney General would have been investigating Ray for “practicing without a license” if Ray had only been representing himself, as opposed to helping another inmate? Many inmates are barely literate, so they often require some assistance in just completing forms correctly. Is the SC Attorney General pushing so hard because Ray may be TOO good an advocate in his estimation? It certainly looks that way to me.

    It is rather disturbing to me that some state and federal law enforcement officials don’t want to see inmates found guilty of any felony offense having access to any kind of legal assistance once their convictions are secured. Then again, there are probably some in law enforcement who would prefer that any criminal defendant be denied their right to legal counsel before trial as well. I have to wonder if the right to self-representation is also in serious jeopardy if an inmate may appear to be TOO good a representative, thus making those on the prosecution side decidedly uneasy.

  9. Anyone want to reconsider that little war to keep these yahoos in the Union? If they secede again, I vote we let that little banana republic go.

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