Odd mix of cases on hold during high court's break

WASHINGTON -- Every day the Supreme Court receives formal legal briefs that cost thousands of dollars just to print. Then there's the larger group of homemade appeals, sometimes scrawled on torn-out notebook paper or held together with duct tape, making pleas that range from touching to odd.

The Constitution gives people unhappy with the outcomes of their cases in lower courts the right to appeal to the nine justices.

The appeals pour in, about 8,000 a year. Some are life-or-death serious, others are unusual. The court picks only 80 or so of those to review, or about 1 percent.

"Behind all those petitions is a human being," said Michael O'Neill, a former Supreme Court clerk. "People have either real or imagined problems. They look to the court to solve their problems."

Not all the colorful cases come in without attorneys.

Former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr is representing a tattoo artist challenging South Carolina's ban on tattooing. Other cases awaiting the court when it returns to work in late September include a transsexual's claim on her husband's estate and a father contesting a court order preventing him from having more children unless he pays past-due child support.

All three cases involve constitutional questions. Is tattooing a free-expression right? Must states recognize the marriage of a man and a transsexual? Can a father be jailed for procreating?

The court also has been asked to weigh in on a patent dispute over women's feminine products, a man's claim that Oprah Winfrey and Alex Trebek watch and terrorize him through his television, an elderly woman's request for $1 billion from the government for secretly implanting a radioactive chip in her left ear, and a case filed by a man who used a power sprayer and 55 gallons of liquefied chicken manure to hose New York's high court.

"Some of them are downright insane," said Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor who clerked at the Supreme Court. "They have grand theories they should realize the court has no interest in hearing."

Fee sometimes waived

Jailhouse appeals are a staple at the court. Other regular subjects involve money, family squabbles, business disputes and challenges to government power.

The Supreme Court waives the $300 filing fee and printing requirements for people who cannot afford it. Professional print jobs can cost $10,000 to prepare lengthy cases to court specifications. Forty copies are required on a certain color and type of paper, printed in a mandatory style and specially bound.

About three-quarters of the cases are filed for free. The number of those has been rising in recent years, while the number of paid cases has fallen.

One of the most famous pauper defendants in Supreme Court history is Clarence Earl Gideon, whose rough, handwritten appeal led to a landmark 1963 ruling that gave poor defendants in state courts the right to lawyers.

The Supreme Court reviews fewer cases now. In 1970, justices heard arguments in 151 cases. In the 2001-02 term, they took 79.