While other prisoners are lifting weights or playing basketball, Michael Ray is working 40 hours a week, his head buried in legal texts and journals. Over the years, the jailhouse lawyer has helped dozens of fellow inmates file appeals, sometimes with success.
But recently Ray secured an achievement rarely seen by even the most experienced of attorneys on the outside: The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in one of his cases.
Legal experts estimate the high court accepts less than 1 percent of the thousands of cases it receives each year. The court's action was even more extraordinary in this instance, because the appeal was drawn up by a prisoner who earns 29 cents an hour and does not even have a college degree, much less a law school education.
"This is basically a once-in-a-lifetime for a good criminal defense attorney, so you can imagine I'm on cloud nine, with my background," the 42-year-old Ray said with a laugh during a recent phone interview from a federal prison in Estill, about 100 miles south of Columbia.
He will not argue the case himself when it comes up in March. Only those admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court can do that. He will not even be allowed out of prison to attend the hearing.
Ray has been behind bars for much of his adult life for various fraud schemes. A former paralegal on the outside, he is nearing the end of a six-year sentence handed down after he pleaded guilty to various offenses, including passing a bad check for about $285,000 as part of a real estate scheme in Myrtle Beach.
"I just have a real problem with financial institutions, and I'm a self-proclaimed addicted gambler," he said.
Pays his bar dues
As a prison law clerk, Ray files petitions and draws up motions for inmates who ask for his help. He keeps current on legal issues by reading professional journals and has joined several legal associations, including the American Bar Association.
"They're probably not super proud to have me as a member, but I do pay my dues every year," said Ray, who is also trying to complete his undergraduate degree through a correspondence course.
The case before the Supreme Court involves a man named Keith Lavon Burgess, who is in prison for possession of crack with intent to distribute. In Burgess' appeal, which was rejected by the lower courts, Ray argued that a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence should not have applied to Burgess because a prior drug conviction was a misdemeanor, not a felony. A successful appeal could cut Burgess' sentence in half.
Jeff Fisher, a Stanford University law professor, will argue the case put together by Ray. Fisher said he could not recall another appeal written by a jailhouse lawyer for a fellow inmate getting this far in the court system.
"It's terrific that he was able to help Mr. Burgess," Fisher said.
Admirer sees quality work
Bill Nettles, a South Carolina defense attorney who has had two cases reach the Supreme Court, said Burgess may have a shot at winning because of the recent easing of sentencing guidelines that punish crack-related crimes more harshly than those involving powdered cocaine. He said Ray picked a hot topic and obviously did a solid job on his legal brief.
"This Supreme Court will go down in history as one of the most conservative Supreme Courts, if not ever, then certainly of our lifetime, and for them to give that sort of time to someone who has no legal training, I think it speaks volumes about the quality of the work this guy did," Nettles said.
Given his criminal record, Ray knows it is unlikely any state would let him take the bar examination and practice law after he gets out. Instead, he plans to do consulting for a South Carolina firm when he is released in April for what he says will be the last time.
"I'm just getting too old for this," Ray said. "I will not be back."