Lone Warrior For Justice? -- Jailhouse Lawyer's Filings Brought Special Ruling By Supreme Court

When time came to tap John Robert Demos Jr. for his 15 minutes of fame, it was the U.S. Supreme Court that did the tapping.

And a gentle tap it wasn't.

It seems Demos, 39, known inside Washington prisons as inmate 287455, and outside to state and federal courts as the king of frivolous appeals, had appealed one too many times.

Or 32 times directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, to be exact.

So this spring, the venerable judges in their black robes voted to shut John Demos down.

No more frivolous legal maneuvers paid for by the taxpayers, they ruled, getting Demos publicity in major newspapers and magazines, including Time.

Sure, Demos - and other poor people - can petition the courts any way they see fit, but from now on the silly stuff won't get its day unless they personally pay for it.

That's $300, please.

From his institutional-beige cell - No. 15, second tier, D wing - in the Washington State Reformatory at Monroe, Demos fumed and cried no fair. On $45 a month earned mopping floors in the reformatory's kitchen, how was he going to pay his legal bills? Why, the postage alone, borne by the good citizens of Washington, has topped $1,000 in the last four years.

Demos wasn't the only one with a burr under his saddle.

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall accused the court of failure to explain why "it has singled out an indigent litigant for having lodged frivolous filings when paying litigants often are guilty of the same sin."

The high court, Marshall wrote ominously, "moves ever closer to the day when it leaves an indigent litigant with a meritorious claim out in the cold."

Just who is this John Demos, convicted of burglary and attempted rape. And what has this self-taught jailhouse lawyer done to rile the court?

Is he, as he and his filings would suggest, a man jailed too long for too little, who now sees himself as "a latter-day Robin Hood where I take injustice from the rich and give justice to the poor"?

Or is Demos, as Monroe's superintendent, Kenneth DuCharme suspects, a polite, even self-effacing prisoner, who "has some need for psychological adjustment"?

"He's not a problem in terms of behavior," adds Jim Evans, a reformatory supervisor. "But in terms of litigation he's a major problem. You can't just say to the court, `This is b.s.'

"Still," sighs Evans, "you'd rather have this than riots."

In Olympia, Kathleen Mix, the senior assistant attorney general for the state prison system, pushes a thick black notebook across her office table.

While its contents contain nowhere near the entire Demos court history - an estimated 500 filings of one sort or another - it does provide a glimpse of his greatest hits.

First sent to prison from Yakima for attempted robbery and assault, Demos has, in the words of the U.S. District Court, asked it to expend its resources on such "colorful and innovative contentions" as:

-- His civil rights have been violated because paper money is no longer backed by silver.

-- As a member of the Chocktaw Indian tribe, he's entitled to a $15 million reimbursement for treaties broken in the 1800s.

-- As a male, he's a victim of sex discrimination because the prison system won't ship him to the Washington Corrections Center for Women at Purdy.

He's also alleged his rights were abridged when the prison didn't recognize his new name, Anwarr Ibenn Abdul Hakeem Shabazz.

In response, one court wrote:

"So long as Mr. Demos confined his submissions to a leisurely pace of two or so per week his contributions to prison-related judicature were tolerable, and indeed were welcomed by the staff as invigorating respites from an otherwise workaday schedule. Now, however, the stride has quickened.

"Unlike vitamins and apples, the effect of digesting Demos' pleadings on a schedule of one a day, everyday, is somewhat less than salubrious."

Demos, the court feared, was approaching the record of "the legendary Clovis Carl Green, a man who has filed no less than 600 separate actions (in several states). Left to his own devices, and given any encouragement at all, it is safe to wager that our own Mr. Demos could easily dethrone the current champion."

Indeed Demos seemed bent on it, filing a blizzard of paperwork asking the courts to grant him high-sounding stuff like motions for relief, motions for extraordinary relief, special affidavits and motions for extraordinary relief, and his favorite: something called a personal restraint petition.

Using that one, he's repeatedly challenged every facet of the convictions that now keep him imprisoned.

In January 1978, while on parole for his Yakima crimes, the then 26-year-old Demos got a janitorial job at a Seattle hostel. According to court documents, his second day on the job he entered the room of a sleeping hostel resident and tried to rape her. When she resisted, he fled, clutching his pants and his shoes, and giving four witnesses a good look at his face.

He was charged with first-degree attempted rape and first-degree burglary - not because he took anything from the woman, but because the law says entering unlawfully and with the intent to commit a crime against a person is burglary.

A jury found him guilty. A judge pronounced the sentences:

For the attempted rape: up to 10 years in prison.

For the burglary: up to life.

So Demos got himself a bunch of yellow legal pads and in his strong, spiky handwriting began penning his way to notoriety.

But court after court was having none of it, and if Demos had favorite themes, so did they.

"Naked castings into the constitutional sea are not sufficient to command judicial consideration and discussion," courts responded repeatedly.

In other words, Demos couldn't just take a long-winded flier and allege error - like he wasn't guilty of burglary because the incident wasn't at night. He had to prove it according to the law.

As far as the courts were concerned he never did.

"There are inmates out there who are good and intelligent and learn a lot through this process (becoming their own jailhouse lawyer). But Mr. Demos isn't one of them," observes Mix, whose office received more than 300 inmate-generated legal actions in the last year.

"I recall getting a pleading from him - and they're often poetic and amusing - that said, `alas, the mutinous ship of unconstitutionality has sailed into the harbor of my rights once more.' "

Before the U.S. Supreme Court shut him down, state and federal courts in Washington tried to curb him.

But like a kid playing bumper cars, he'd find some way through traffic jams to keep his legal life alive.

In person, John Robert Demos seems too polite to be so litigious. Attorney Mix says he once insisted on being called the Rabbi Dr. John Demos. When he became a Black Muslim that was replaced legally by Anwarr Shabazz.

But now, he's mellow when reformatory personnel call him John. He even signs "John Demos" to a release allowing his photo to be taken, and although he seems too nervous at first to make eye contact, he says he loves being photographed. In his 4 1/2 years at Monroe, he's never had a visitor.

Demos gives snippets from his background: only child, born in Seattle. High-school graduate. A 5-foot-10, 145 pound vegetarian. Minister by way of the mail-order Universal Life Church, now a follower of "Yahweh's New Kingdom out of Prescott, Ariz."

Says he's a lover of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Beethoven "and I guess you could round it off with a little Mozart." Has no radio in his cell because he doesn't want anything to interfere with his legal work. Says 60 percent of it is on behalf of other inmates.

But most of all, Demos says, he loves the law and what it's done for him.

Asked how he feels about his life's path, he answers: "under the circumstances, with what I've had to work with, it's turned out beautifully.

"When you come to prison, all your dreams and hopes are stripped away. You have to really will it to be somebody."

And he knows who he is:

"John Demos is a lone warrior for justice. Who needs a lawyer in this prison when John Demos is here?"

Thus he bristles at the thought of those lawyers in robes dismissing his filings as frivolous.

"I feel in my heart that my causes are right. You'll notice even in the latest ruling they didn't say this man is a madman. One man's truth is another man's bitterness."

Take that suit involving Purdy. To Demos, transferring him from what he considers a snakepit of warped sexuality to a women's institution had a certain inspired logic.

"If you have a choice between condoning homosexuality or nipping it in the bud, then do it. Send me to Purdy. I'm gracious."

He's also, he says, made a positive impact with his litigation, curtailing strip searches, and winning inmates vegetarian meals.

But superintendent DuCharme says it isn't so, and assistant attorney general Mix concurs. Both are positively joyful about the Supreme Court's Demos decision shutting down frivolous suits by him and others.

Says Mix: "we've simply seen too high a volume of meaningless litigation out of inmates. They're merely diversions for the bored, outlets for the antisocial. We should be dealing with real issues - not this kind of nonsense."

But the litigation king isn't through.

"This is for the news media. This is a statement," he says flipping through the pages of a lined yellow tablet and reading:

"I have the option to petition for a rehearing of the U.S. Supreme Court. If I get another denial, then I have the option that would trouble me: to petition the Congress to impeach the chief justice for violating the laws of the U.S. Congress."

The Demos decision is not one to be taken lightly, believes American Civil Liberties spokesman Phil Gutis.

The problem comes, says Gutis, in deciding which claims are frivolous - and thus off limits to poor litigants - and which ones are not.

Gutis says that by its ruling, the court is saying " `you're annoying us; go away,' instead of deciding if there's a valid legal claim or dismissing it.

"The decision in the Demos case suggests the court is saying, `We don't want to hear your cries anymore.' "

Meanwhile, John Demos is a potential candidate for release next spring.

When he gets out he knows just what he wants to do. Work in a law firm.

"The law isn't just something I do while in here. The law is something you live, sleep and eat."