Even the most poor can help shape Supreme Court decisions

WASHINGTON—Bruce Brendlin has a rap sheet, a drug history and a reasonably good shot at shaping the Constitution.

A prison-worn resident of California's Sacramento Valley, Brendlin hit the legal lottery when the Supreme Court last Monday considered his constitutional challenge to a November 2001 arrest. Whether Brendlin wins or loses, the hearing was a remarkable achievement for a man who's been elusive even to his own lawyer.

"It is my suspicion," Brendlin's attorney, Elizabeth Campbell, advised the court in November, "that Mr. Brendlin may currently be living on the street."

Brendlin's life, in fact, has been even more complicated than that. But that's often the case with those who rely on "in forma pauperis," the Supreme Court's lifeline for indigents.

The Latin phrase refers to a pauper who can't afford legal costs. Special considerations apply to their court petitions, and a $300 filing fee is waived for non-prisoners. Odds-wise, though, the pauper's chances of getting his case reviewed is like those of a reform-school kid getting into Yale Law School.

From October, when the court's new term began, to March 1, the Supreme Court received 4,759 "in forma pauperis" petitions. That was 6 percent more than the court's previous term. Of this term, only 10 were granted review.

By contrast, the court received 1,186 standard petitions and granted review to 45.

"They are amazingly low numbers overall," said Elizabeth Alexander, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, "but some of these cases have great merit and will succeed if they can get into court."

The petitions jam the Supreme Court clerk's office. Many, though not all, come from prisoners, and they can get ugly.

Jerome Borders, for instance, is a convicted cocaine dealer who's now serving a life sentence in Kentucky's Big Sandy federal prison.

"As preedent or authority that quested this court in violations of justice to the constitutions of the rights to the bill of rights to due process of clause to jurisdiction of justice to this said named court room," Borders wrote, rather inexplicably, in one legal filing included with his petition.

Other indigent petitions are hand-scrawled, like the one filed by convicted rapist Earnest Harris, now doing time in California's Pelican Bay state prison. The court quickly rejected his petition last year.

Still others reflect a prison-based persistence that can irritate judges.

In mid-April, for instance, the court rejected the latest petition from Willie B. Hadley Jr., a murderer who's serving 74 years in an Illinois state prison. Concluding that Hadley has "repeatedly abused this court's process" through half a dozen petitions, the justices imposed strict new filing limits on him this month.

"Frivolous lawsuits filed by prisoners tie up the courts, waste valuable legal resources and affect the quality of justice enjoyed by law-abiding citizens," then-Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas complained in 1995, when Congress was acting to restrict prisoner lawsuits.

Passed in 1996, the Prison Litigation Reform Act imposed new hurdles, including a limit on an inmate's "in forma pauperis" petitions if judges rule that the filings are frivolous or malicious. In certain cases, indigent prisoners must also pay filing fees on an installment plan.

"What Congress wanted to do was cut down on frivolous lawsuits, not those that have substantial merit," said Alexander, whose ACLU group is now trying to revise the prisoner litigation restrictions.

Sometimes, though, it's the least sympathetic indigents who spark the farthest-reaching rulings. Florida drifter Clarence Gideon, for instance, filed the five-page petition to the Supreme Court that led to a landmark 1963 decision requiring states to provide defense attorneys to the poor.

Brendlin's case could clarify whether the Fourth Amendment's protections against illegal search and seizures extend to passengers in a car stopped by police.

Even conservative justices sounded sympathetic Monday to Brendlin's claim that passengers are effectively detained when a car is pulled over and therefore are constitutionally protected from having evidence seized without probable cause or a warrant.

"I would certainly, if I were the passenger, not feel free immediately to open the door and start walking away," Justice Antonin Scalia acknowledged.

Brendlin's claims arise from his arrest in Yuba City, Calif. A Sutter County deputy sheriff mistakenly believed that Brendlin, 46, was a passenger in a car that lacked valid registration tags. The deputy investigated anyway and discovered an arrest warrant for Brendlin, a former resident of Citrus Heights in Sacramento County.

A subsequent search found marijuana and material used to make methamphetamine. After failing to get the evidence suppressed in court, Brendlin was sentenced to four years in prison. Campbell, with the Central California Appellate Program, asked him if she could appeal. He agreed.

Once paroled, Brendlin relocated to Marysville in Northern California's rural Butte County, then mostly dropped out of sight. Last year, he was arrested for drug paraphernalia possession and driving with a suspended license. On April 11, just as Campbell was preparing for the April 23 Supreme Court argument, Brendlin was arraigned again in Butte County Superior Court.

The new charge: violating parole.

Brendlin couldn't be reached for comment, and Campbell didn't return calls.