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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This year is the 50th anniversary of Gideon versus Wainwright, the Supreme Court's landmark decision requiring the government to provide lawyers for poor people accused of serious crimes. Clarence Gideon, the defendant in that case, wrote his own petition to the high court in longhand. And today, the Supreme Court is hearing the case of another defendant, who, in the longest of longshots, also filed a handwritten petition from prison, asking the justices for their help. NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has that story.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Kim Millbrook is not nearly as sympathetic a figure as Clarence Gideon. After all, Gideon was acquitted at his retrial after the Supreme Court ordered the state of Florida to provide him a lawyer. In contrast, Kim Millbrook's conviction and 31-year prison sentence is not an issue in this case. What's at issue is whether he can sue the United States government over allegations that he was assaulted by prison guards at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

Millbrook claims that he was held down by one guard and forced to perform a sexual act on another guard while a third prison guard stood watch. His case was thrown out by the lower courts without ruling on the merits of the allegations. Instead, the lower courts dismissed the case on grounds of sovereign immunity, the concept that the government is immune to certain kinds of lawsuits.

When the case got to the Supreme Court, Millbrook had an unexpected ally, sort of. The government alerted the court to an issue Millbrook had not raised, but that the lower courts across the country are divided on. The issue is whether federal law waives sovereign immunity and allows lawsuits against the United States for intentional wrongful acts by prison guards acting as law enforcement officials. That's the question the justices are tackling today.

Even if Millbrook wins the right to sue, though, there is serious doubt as to whether he'll ultimately win his case. He is what is known in the trade as a frequent filer. He files lots of cases against the prisons where he's been forced to reside, and he has not yet won a single one of them. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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