Supreme Court Agrees To Hear Case After Handwritten Filing From Prisoner Representing Himself

from the don't-see-that-every-day dept

In the past, we’ve noted just how complicated it is to file a petition to the Supreme Court to hear your case. Many of the rules seem designed to make it difficult and expensive. While that may be useful in lowering the number of crackpot filings, it still seems to go too far. It’s especially difficult for “pro se” filings — people who are representing themselves, rather than having a lawyer do it for them. While many pro se cases are disasters from the beginning (no need to mention the old joke about a “fool for a client”), sometimes they can get somewhere. Popehat alerts us to the news that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case (“granted cert,” as they say) in Holt v. Hobbs, after the petitioner, a prisoner by the name of Gregory Holt, filed a handwritten petition.

The specific case involves a question of whether or not a prison’s “no beards” policy violates Holt’s religious freedom (he’s Muslim, and wants to wear a trimmed beard for religious reasons). While there are plenty of stories of wacky pro se lawsuits from inmates, in this case it appears that Holt has carefully researched the issues, the legal precedents, and how to file a petition for the Supreme Court. While the Court did limit the questions the court will consider to just one basic one, it’s still impressive to see a handwritten pro se case get heard by the Supreme Court. Of course, now I’m wondering how Holt will handle the oral arguments since he’s in prison.

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Comments on “Supreme Court Agrees To Hear Case After Handwritten Filing From Prisoner Representing Himself”

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BSD32x (profile) says:

I would have to think this one would have a lot of precedent; I used to be a Corrections Officer, and Native Americans are already allowed to wear their hair down to their waists for religious reasons based on their religious beliefs. IANAL though, I’m not sure what role tribal sovereignty plays in it, but considering it applied to state and federal prisons I’d wager it should still be valuable precedent.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

There are so many god damn legitimate reasons to hate Obama, don’t make shit up.

At this point people like you are just straight up racist and lazy to boot when you can’t just… I don’t know… go into TechDirt history and dig up articles where Obama hasn’t done things that appeal at all to the regular readership that frequent this blog.

I hope you learn what a waste of human shit you are and safely kill yourself in a waste management facility.

Steve D. (profile) says:

I looked him up...

As I suspected, the guy is an utter piece of shit…

He murdered his girlfriend by slitting her throat open.

He claimed in court that he was not bound by US law and only recognized Sharia law.

He called himself the “American Taliban”.

…and threatened the jury with “jihad” if they found him guilty!

Yep. He’s exactly the kind of scum that the SCOTUS should be entertaining while they turn away important cases that they want to avoid ruling on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I looked him up...

Everyone deserves the same treatment even if they are a “piece of $#!t”
He has a good point, the law does not seem to be applied equally to all people.

If you disagree with what I have said fear the day your race, religion, or creed falls out of style and you are treated differently than others.

we says:

Re: Re: me

i have Jewish blood not religion…if i had to b put in a catagory it would b christain, or try everyday to be,falling short all the time…see thats what my ma taught me is to try and make it right even when i hav NO idea why the “attack” in the first place started bout…i must of done or said something to hurt someone. i must need to say sorry,just wish i knew why to someone. just wish i knew who and id done it in person..if they wanted

FM Hilton (profile) says:

A safe Cert

So the SC decided to hear the case of a man who is in prison for murdering his girlfriend about getting his beard approved.

How many death row cases got filed and turned away, I wonder?

Most pro-se cases are from prisoners, and are desperate attempts to have someone, anyone hear their case-and the SC usually ignores them. The rules are extremely complicated as Mike noted, and are designed to limit all but the most important issues.

It’s a religious issue, and that’s important. Life and death are not, I guess.

New Mexico Mark says:

Reminds me of a movie scene...

In “The Abyss”, Lindsey has just said something annoying over the radio. Virgil quips to “Hippy”, “God I hate that bitch.” Hippy responds, “Probably shouldn’t have married her then, huh?”

In this case, “Guess you should have thought about the many inconveniences you might face before you murdered your girlfriend.”

He has a point about precedents that allow other groups to wear variant hair styles. The way I see it, the only good thing that might come out of this is a general ruling by SCOTUS that violent felons (who have removed all rights from their victims) have lost all but the most basic rights for themselves. Failure of prisons to cater to varying cultures and religions does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

One can move anything from the realm of preference to that of conviction. However, the only true test of conviction is that someone is willing to die for that belief. If all Muslims began committing suicide rather than get shaved, there might be a worthwhile Supreme Court argument. Until then, not so much.

Then again, we should consider that this perpetrator is asking for greater freedom to practice the very belief system under which he slit his girlfriend’s throat. (In other words, he was a practicing Muslim when he committed his crime. This does not by itself invalidate Islamic belief, but one could argue the efficacy of such a belief system for those convicted of heinous crimes.) His defense was not based on innocence, repentance, or even remorse, but rather that only Sharia law applies to him.

The SCOTUS might be looking at this from the perspective of the “free exercise” of religion. However, my argument is that granting this (and any similar) petition from prisoners would be “the establishment” of religion.

Maybe the best way to handle cases like this going forward would be for defendants, whose defense is based wholly or in part on the argument that U.S. law does not apply to them because of their beliefs, should first make informed consent that if they are convicted they will also lose the protections afforded by U.S. law until their sentence is fulfilled.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Reminds me of a movie scene...

While I feel some sympathy with the argument “but he’s a scumbag, **** him,” I can’t see anything in the 1st Amendment that bans religion and religious expression altogether, only the imposition of it on other people via the state. This guy only wants it for himself.

In many US states, certain laws appear to be the result of religious beliefs, not scientifically proven facts. Effectively, they are imposing a state-sponsored religion on the rest of us. They might not be fining us for not attending services, but they’re making it hard for people who don’t share their beliefs to visit loved ones in hospital, inherit property, receive benefits, or control their fertility with drugs, etc.

New Mexico Mark says:

Re: Re: Reminds me of a movie scene...

My arguments are not so much “but he’s a scumbag” as:

1. By its very nature, punishment for crime (violation of moral law) is a removal of rights (argued by moral law).
2. The extent of the rights of victim(s) removed by the perpetrator (in this case life itself) should influence the number of rights perpetrators enjoy after conviction. I’m sure “this guy wants” a lot of freedoms for himself. However, his actions and the subsequent removal of rights precludes some of those freedoms, no matter how much he may want them.
3. Free citizens (i.e. free to leave) of a nation who formally deny all authority of that nation’s laws over their person may justifiably be denied some or even all of the privileges and protections of that nation’s body of law. (enemy combatant?) I’m much more cautious about this one because it opens up many avenues for abuse, but I think it is reasonable if there are sufficient checks and balances.

As for law being based on science, I’d argue that all laws are moral and not scientific. Science is useful to help determine the specifics of how moral law was broken, but moral law is outside the scope of science. Even laws about weights and measures deal with the morality of perverting those systems for gain rather than the things themselves.

If we exclude everything but nature, and assert that our existence is merely a chance reaction of chemicals, then moral law is meaningless. (Your opinion and my opinion would be equally meaningless results of electrochemical interactions. Of course, the fact that I think you and your opinion are worthy of response indicates I don’t believe that.) “Law” without the acceptance of the existence of moral law that supersedes human opinion becomes simply an enforced “moral majority” in any society, Christian to cannibal. (Notice how I skirted Godwin’s law there. )

He was free to exercise religious expression until he murdered his girlfriend. At that point some of his freedoms (including some religious expression) were removed. Should Muslim prisoners also be free to make a pilgrimage to Mecca? Isn’t this one of the five pillars of Islam, way more important that a beard?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Reminds me of a movie scene...

“I’d argue that all laws are moral and not scientific.”

Although laws are not scientific (and they should be!), they are certainly not moral. What’s legal and what’s moral are two different circles in the Venn diagram. How much or little they overlap is a legitimate topic of debate, but they are different things.

Roman V (user link) says:


But there are members of his faith, devout ones, who do not wear a beard or who do not believe a beard is mandatory. So let’s take prison and the inherent limitations that will be and should be placed on inmates – if it is to be judged on grounds of religious freedom it means the court has to effectively make a judgement on whether or not beards are in fact religion. Separation of religion and state is now thrown out the window.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Interpretation

It doesn’t matter what other Muslims believe. His argument is that if it’s not unduly burdensome to the prison system, his own personal beliefs of how Islam should be practiced should be respected, regardless of how other Muslims choose to practice it.

Unless it seriously gets in the way of prison operations, it wouldn’t be right to tell a Seventh-Day Adventist that they are forbidden to observe a Saturday Sabbath, simply because other devout Christians choose to practice it on Sunday.

The question in this case should simply be whether it’s too burdensome on the prison to allow it. Maybe it is. They may argue that even a 1/2 inch beard could hide contraband, or prevent easy identification. Or that it would to be too burdensome for guards to regularly measure beard length to ensure compliance.

Regardless of how it turns out, it’ll be a great learning experience for Mr. Holt. I compliment him for challenging policies in a very civil manner. Best of luck to him.

FM Hilton (profile) says:

Contradictions of law

This, totally:
Maybe the best way to handle cases like this going forward would be for defendants, whose defense is based wholly or in part on the argument that U.S. law does not apply to them because of their beliefs, should first make informed consent that if they are convicted they will also lose the protections afforded by U.S. law until their sentence is fulfilled.

From what I understand, part of his defense was that he did not think the US justice system applied to him-only Sharia law.

“The would-be beheader said how he wasn?t bound by American laws, but only recognized the Shariah (Islamic), the law of Islam.”

By taking this case, I fear that the SC has stepped into the boundaries of making religion as a way one can be exempt from rules that one has to deal with when incarcerated under our system of justice.

He’s using a legal system that he does not its’ full advantage for his own personal purposes in fulfilling his own personal religious requirements.

If it were a ‘class action’ suit by a group of prisoners, I would agree with the cert-but sometimes one has to stop and wonder why some cases do get accepted. This is one of them.

The BOP has pretty strict mandates about accommodating religious prisoners, and they do their best to do so.

I believe he’s playing the system, he knows he is, and loves every minute of his middle finger waving, because that’s what it boils down to in my view.

When you’re convicted of murder, you should not expect your rights to be fully enforceable while doing time.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Contradictions of law

“He’s using a legal system that he does not recognize..”

Yes, so? The legal system he “doesn’t recognize” is the one that is the largest force in his life. He has no choice but to use it. “Recognition” is irrelevant.

“I believe he’s playing the system, he knows he is, and loves every minute of his middle finger waving, because that’s what it boils down to in my view”

Again, so? His attitude and intention is also unimportant. What’s important is the validity of his arguments. Apparently the Supreme court agrees, since they are hearing the case.

Personally, I suspect the SC took this case because they wanted to make a ruling around this issue and saw an opportunity to do so through it. If my suspicions are correct, they’re “playing the system” to the same degree as Mr. Holt.

Paul Alan Levy (profile) says:

How Holt will handle the oral arguments since he's in prison.

If it comes to that, the Supreme Court will appoint an experienced Supreme Court lawyer to file briefs and argue on Holt’s behalf. That, for example, is how Abe Fortas ended up arguing Gideon v. Wainwright. But that will likely be unnecessary, because these days once cert is granted,even in cases where the parties had lawyers below, crowds of experienced Supreme Court lawyers descend trying to take over the case, either for pay or for glory (or both).

My guess is that experienced Supreme Court lawyers are lined up right now trying to get Holt to pick them to argue on his behalf.

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