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Michael Ray makes 29 cents an hour as a prison library law clerk, but his legal career involves a feat most lawyers will never accomplish. Ray, a federal inmate for much of the past 20 years, recently helped another inmate author a brief in a case that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review. “It’s a double-edged sword,” Ray said of his prison life during a phone interview. “Had I not been here, would I ever have anything before the Supreme Court? It’s not a good analogy but it’s true. Even the most prominent attorneys don’t have a cert petition granted by the Supreme Court. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” The case involves another federal inmate, Keith Burgess, who has been serving time on drug charges. At issue is the interpretation of a federal statute that enhances sentencing of drug offenders to a 20-year minimum if there is a prior drug felony charge. Burgess v. USA, No. 06-11429 (U.S.). The Supreme Court typically hears fewer than 1% of the cases it receives. During the 2006 term, the court had 8,857 filings, out of which 78 were argued. The previous year, the justices heard 87 cases out of 8,521 filings. Ray, 42, of Myrtle Beach, S.C., went to prison three times on bank, mail and wire fraud charges and is currently serving his third term in a medium security facility in Estill, S.C. Ray said he works at the law library for about seven hours a day, has kept his paralegal certification active and is completing an associate degree in legal studies through a correspondence course. He added that he is known as the busiest inmate around. Ray estimates that he has filed about 75 petitions with the U.S. Supreme Court during the past 20 years, as well as dozens of habeas corpus and other petitions and some 50 civil actions on his own behalf. Ray said he met Burgess in 2004 and agreed to look at his case. Burgess, who is now 30 and has since been transferred to a medium-security facility in Ray Brook, N.Y., is serving time for possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of crack cocaine. In March 2007, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Burgess’ sentence. But Ray said he found it interesting that the opinion mentioned Burgess’ right to “petition” the Supreme Court “for further review.” He said he took it as a hint and spent about five to seven days helping Burgess prepare the brief. Because he had no Internet access, Ray said he did it the old-fashioned way � by reading books and researching case law in the prison library. Burgess, who is listed as representing himself pro se in court documents, with Ray’s name also on the brief, declined to be interviewed. Burgess’ case centers on the interpretation of “felony drug offense.” He was sentenced to 13 years � he received a reduction from the 20-year minimum for cooperating � because a district court relied on a statute that imposes a 20-year minimum sentence when there is a prior conviction for a “felony drug offense.” Burgess had served a previous one-year sentence on state drug charges. In the brief, he argued that that offense is classified under state law as a misdemeanor and therefore is not a “felony drug offense.” The government countered that felonies are already defined as crimes punishable with one or more years. Ray said he knew there was at least a 50% chance the Supreme Court would review the case because of a circuit split. The D.C. Circuit, in a separate case, issued a ruling that backs Burgess’ argument, saying the sentencing enhancement can be applied only if the prior drug offense is punishable by at least a year in prison and defined as a felony by the ruling authority. But the 1st and 4th circuits came down on the other side, ruling that a prior drug offense is classified as a felony as long as it is punishable by at least a year of imprisonment. A ‘human voice’ Jeffrey Fisher, a Stanford Law School professor who was appointed last month to represent Burgess, said he is proud of Burgess and Ray’s success in reaching the Supreme Court. “I think it’s terrific � it shows the court pays attention to every filing it receives,” Fisher said. “I think it’s perhaps especially appropriate that in a case dealing with this drastic mandatory minimum, the court listened to a human voice in taking this case.” Students from Stanford’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic and the Harvard Law School Supreme Court Litigation Clinic are helping with the case. Fisher said he believes that oral arguments will take place in late March, which will be his eighth appearance before the nation’s highest court. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice said its officials do not comment on ongoing cases. But in a brief, government attorneys have argued that the conflict presented in the case is “extremely limited. “This issue does not arise often, because the vast majority of States define offenses punishable by more than one year of imprisonment as felonies,” the government attorneys wrote. Ray, who is scheduled to be released in April, will not be allowed to sit for the bar exam because of his criminal record, but said he hopes to work as a paralegal or a legal assistant. He is ready to trade his illegal career for a legal one, he said, adding he has received a confidential employment offer from a South Carolina law firm.

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