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It started not long after he stunned California by winning the case. Erwin Chemerinsky, the constitutional law professor at the University of Southern California, started getting letter after letter. After letter. After letter. Each was from one of California’s Three Strikes inmates. Or their wives. Or mothers. “There were so many,” Chemerinsky said recently. Everyone wanted Chemerinsky to do what he had done for Leandro Andrade, a man serving 50 years to life for stealing a dozen videotapes: get a court to rule that his client’s sentence was cruel and unusual. News of last year’s ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals spread throughout the California prison system, and numerous prisoners are paying close attention to the arguments today at the U.S. Supreme Court. Chemerinsky’s doing all he can. Though he successfully represented two others in making the claim, the 9th Circuit has since stopped asking for briefing on the cases as its judges await a ruling from the high court on Lockyer v. Andrade, 01-1127, and a companion case, Ewing v. California, 01-6978. State officials chose to appeal the ruling in Andrade directly to the high court, rather than asking the 9th Circuit for en banc review. “The attorney general supports the law and believes that it is keeping repeat offenders off the street,” said Hallye Jordan, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Lockyer. In bunches, Chemerinsky forwarded the letters to David Porter, a federal public defender in Sacramento. He keeps them in a stack in his office. “It’s about six or seven inches high,” said Porter, who is keeping them for possible future legal action. Inmates are keenly aware of the import of today’s arguments, lawyers said. California has about 7,300 Three Strikes prisoners. According to the California Department of Corrections, more than half drew a third strike for a non-violent property or drug crime. The issue likely to concern the Supreme Court is the use of so-called “wobblers” as third strikes — crimes which can be counted as misdemeanors or felonies. In its Supreme Court brief, the state argues that the only unconstitutional sentences should be those “not susceptible to debate among reasonable minds. Any other test is unworkable and antithetical to concepts of federalism.” What happens after the justices rule depends not just on what they rule, but how they instruct lower courts to apply it to other inmates sentenced under Three Strikes. “I think I’ve had inquiries from almost all the Three Strikes clients I’ve had,” said Ross Thomas, a San Francisco solo. “They are absolutely on top of it, and I’ve helped the guys I’ve felt most sorry for.” Some say it could be one of the more closely watched Supreme Court cases in the history of the California penal system. “If they upheld [Three Strikes], it would be like a death sentence to a lot of us with no future,” wrote George Michael Lane, an inmate at Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown, in a letter to The Recorder. Lane is serving 25 years to life for possessing $40 worth of stolen jewelry. His two previous felonies were non-violent burglaries — one in 1984, the other in 1990. Also paying close attention are the families of Three Strikes prisoners. Tom Watts is part of a support group in Bakersfield for such families. “Hopefully, the Supreme Court will rule in favor of not counting ‘wobblers’ as third strikes,” said Watts, whose son is serving 25 to life for possessing $400 worth of stolen tools.

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