It only takes a majority of the Florida Supreme Court to make or break state law. But the justices do, on occasion, come together to speak with one voice.
The state's highest court spoke in unison on Thursday, and this is what was said:
The Florida Supreme Court is sick and tired of prisoner John Everett Pettway's endless handwritten appeals — and it wants him to put a sock in it.
"Pettway's abusive pro se filings relating to his conviction and sentence must immediately come to an end," wrote Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis in the opinion released Thursday.
Pro se is Latin for "on one's own behalf." Pettway has been researching and writing his own legal filings from inside Raiford's Union Correctional Institution.
That's where Pettway, 61, is serving a life sentence for sneaking into an 11-year-old Zephyrhills girl's room and fondling her in 1992.
• • •
The other six justices joined Lewis in condemning Pettway and banning him from any more pro se filings.
There's no shortage of those in the Dade City man's court file. In 1993 Pettway was convicted of burglary and two counts of lewd and lascivious assault on a child.
His conviction and life sentence were upheld in 1994. Ever since, judges have ruled again and again that there's nothing illegal about either.
His case docket is a paean to his persistence. He has filed at least 20 motions for post-conviction relief. Though the courts have consistently denied them, Pettway has consistently filed more of them.
At one point the 2nd District Court of Appeal also told Pettway to stop filing.
"A little knowledge is a dangerous thing," said Stetson law professor Robert Batey. "Many inmates feel that they understand enough about the law to file these types of proceedings and they don't take no for an answer.
"So they find another way to present the same argument and eventually it offends the court."
• • •
In one of his latest appeals, filed in February in circuit court, Pettway argued that his conviction "is illegal which is not authorized by law."
Curiously, he used the article "an" ahead of the term "battery." He also misspelled judgment.
He has done some homework. The basis for that appeal is a 2007 case that he says establishes a new interpretation of the law — one that nullifies his conviction.
Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa didn't buy it. In a curt dismissal, he said the case doesn't apply.
Siracusa's order was dated March 13. Pettway filed another notice of appeal on March 24.
The chief justice wrote that these filings must be banned, or else "Pettway will continue filing nonmeritorious requests ."
State law allows the Department of Corrections to discipline inmates who make "frivolous or malicious filings."
• • •
Under federal and state law the right to access the courts is a fundamental one. But the Florida Supreme Court said it is not violating that right.
The justices told Pettway that from now on, he needs to get a lawyer to sign on to a pleading that has "merit" and is "filed in good faith."
Once, Batey said, he had strong feelings about such a ban.
"When I first heard of this I was offended by (what) seems a fundamental violation of the rights of due process," he said. "But I do understand the anger and frustration that not only judges but also court officials and clerks have when these individuals repeatedly … take up their time and clog up their filing cabinets."
But Batey said such bans are not uncommon.
"I'm worried that the Florida courts are too quick these days to bar people from filing."
The Florida Supreme Court's opinion said that frivolous filings infringe on the rights of others. It keeps legitimate cases from being heard faster. It taxes the court's "finite resources."
Nor are all jailhouse lawyers created equal.
"You have prisoners who have very little else to do," Batey said. "For some of them it's almost a form of recreation."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.