The Vermont Supreme Court dismissed a case that charged a prisoner at a state correctional facility with illegally practicing law.
In a 15-page unanimous decision, the court found there is no probable cause to believe that Serendipity Morales illegally practiced law when she helped several fellow inmates at Marble Valley Regional Correctional Center with legal filings.
The Bennington County state's attorney's office had brought six counts of unauthorized practice of law against Morales in February.
According to an affidavit from an officer with the Bennington County Sheriff's Department, Morales helped five other prisoners prepare and file papers with the court.
Peter Shumlin has appointed Counsel to the Governor Beth Robinson to the Supreme Court of Vermont. VTD/Anne Galloway
The five inmates said they sought her help after hearing that Morales knew the legal system. Morales never accepted payment from them.
The decision, written by Justice Beth Robinson, considered the laws around unauthorized practice of law in general as well as the particular role of so-called jailhouse lawyers.
The decision points out that some prisoners may face legal matters beyond the cases that resulted in their incarceration; they may have civil cases involving divorce, Social Security or other issues. Jailhouse lawyers can be valuable resources to prisoners as they try to navigate those issues.
"Incarcerated prisoners are not only disproportionately undereducated; their access to a range of legal resources is severely limited and their need may be great," Robinson wrote.
"In short, from a public policy perspective, although 'jailhouse lawyers' may pose a risk to the individuals they are trying to help, and to the court system, they may also perform a valuable service in promoting more meaningful access to justice than their fellow inmates would otherwise enjoy," the decision stated.
The decision dismissed the charges, though with a warning.
"Some inmates may be accomplished legal advisors and advocates, but some may be so limited in their knowledge, skills, and judgment as to leave someone who relies on their legal advice no better off, and perhaps worse off, than if the 'jailhouse lawyer' had done nothing," Robinson wrote.
Emily Tredeau, of the prisoners' rights office of the defender general's office, who, along with Kelly Green, represented Morales in the case, praised the court's decision.
"There are jailhouse lawyers in every prison in Vermont," Tredeau said. "They really serve a vital role in helping people access the courts."
Tredeau spoke with Morales on Friday after the decision came down and said she is "thrilled." Tredeau said the conviction for which Morales is serving time is irrelevant to her right to access the courts and to assist others.
"What her name now stands for is the right of jailhouse lawyers to assist other inmates in accessing the courts," Tredeau said.
Morales is serving time on charges of kidnapping, burglary, violation of a protection order and domestic assault.
Bennington County State's Attorney Erica Marthage did not return a call for comment Monday.
John Treadwell, chief of the criminal division of the attorney general's office, supported the Bennington County state's attorney in a memo submitted to the court.
The state argued that the inmates Morales assisted already had the constitutionally protected right to access the courts because they had counsel appointed.
Treadwell said that aside from the issues at stake in the case, he has concerns about Vermont's policy on unauthorized practice of law, which he said is "archaic" and "does not reflect the reality of modern practice."