430 U.S. 817 (1977), 75-915, Bounds v. Smith,

Docket Nº:No. 75-915
Citation:430 U.S. 817, 97 S.Ct. 1491, 52 L.Ed.2d 72
Party Name:Bounds v. Smith,
Case Date:April 27, 1977
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 817

430 U.S. 817 (1977)

97 S.Ct. 1491, 52 L.Ed.2d 72




No. 75-915

United States Supreme Court

April 27, 1977

Argued November 1, 1976




The fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts held to require prison authorities to assist inmates in the preparation and filing of meaningful legal papers by providing prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law. Younger v. Gilmore, 404 U.S. 15. Pp. 821-833.

538 F.2d 541, affirmed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 833. BURGER, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 833. STEWART, J., post, p. 836, and REHNQUIST, J., post, p. 837, filed dissenting opinions, in which BURGER, C.J., joined.

MARSHALL, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue in this case is whether States must protect the right of prisoners to access [97 S.Ct. 1493] to the courts by providing them with law libraries or alternative sources of legal knowledge. In Younger v. Gilmore, 404 U.S. 15 (1971), we held per curiam that such services are constitutionally mandated. Petitioners, officials of the State of North Carolina, ask us

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to overrule that recent case, but, for reasons explained below, we decline the invitation and reaffirm our previous decision.


Respondents are inmates incarcerated in correctional facilities of the Division of Prisons of the North Carolina Department of Correction. They filed three separate actions under 42 U.S.C. $1983, all eventually consolidated in the District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Respondents alleged, in pertinent part, that they were denied access to the courts in violation of their Fourteenth Amendment rights by the State's failure to provide legal research facilities.1

The District Court granted respondents' motion for summary judgment on this claim,2 finding that the sole prison library in the State was "severely inadequate" and that there was no other legal assistance available to inmates. It held on the basis of Younger v. Gilmore that respondents' rights to access to the courts and equal protection of the laws had been violated because there was "no indication of any assistance at the initial stage of preparation of writs and petitions." The court recognized, however, that determining the "appropriate relief to be ordered . . . presents a difficult problem," in view of North Carolina's decentralized prison system.3 Rather than attempting "to dictate precisely what course the State should follow," the court "charge[d] the Department

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of Correction with the task of devising a constitutionally sound program" to assure inmate access to the courts. It left to the State the choice of what alternative would "most easily and economically" fulfill this duty, suggesting that a program to make available lawyers, law students, or public defenders might serve the purpose at least as well as the provision of law libraries. Supp.App. 113.

The State responded by proposing the establishment of seven libraries in institutions located across the State chosen so as to serve best all prison units. In addition, the State planned to set up smaller libraries in the Central Prison segregation unit and the Women's Prison. Under the plan, inmates desiring to use a library would request appointments. They would be given transportation and housing, if necessary, for a full day's library work. In addition to its collection of lawbooks,4 each library would stock legal forms and writing [97 S.Ct. 1494] paper and have typewriters and use of copying machines. The State proposed to train inmates as research assistants and typists to aid fellow prisoners. It was estimated that ultimately some 350 inmates per week could use the libraries, although inmates not facing court deadlines might have to wait three or four weeks for their turn at a library. Respondents

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protested that the plan was totally inadequate, and sought establishment of a library at every prison.5

The District Court rejected respondent' objections, finding the State's plan "both economically feasible and practicable," and one that, fairly and efficiently run, would "insure each inmate the time to prepare his petitions."6 Id. at 19. Further briefing was ordered on whether the State was required to provide independent legal advisors for inmates in addition to the library facilities.

In it final decision, the District Court held that petitioners were not constitutionally required to provide legal assistance as well as libraries. It found that the library plan was sufficient

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to give inmates reasonable access to the courts, and that our decision in Ross v. Moffitt, 417 U.S. 600 (1974), while not directly in point, supported the State's claim that it need not furnish attorneys to bring habeas corpus and civil rights actions for prisoners.

After the District Court approved the library plan, the State submitted an application to the Federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) for a grant to cover 90% of the cost of setting up the libraries and training a librarian and inmate clerks. The State represented to LEAA that the library project would benefit all inmates in the State by giving them

meaningful and effective access to the court[s]. . . . [T]he ultimate result . . . should be a diminution in the number of groundless petitions and complaints filed. . . . The inmate himself will be able to determine to a greater extent whether or not his rights have been violated,

and judicial evaluation of the petitions will be facilitated. Brief for Respondents 3a.

Both sides appealed from those portions of the District Court orders adverse to them. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed in all respects save one. It found that the library plan denied women prisoners the same access rights as men to research facilities. Since there was no justification for this discrimination, the Court of Appeals ordered it eliminated. The State petitioned for review, and we granted certiorari. 425 U.S. 910 (1976).7 We affirm.


A. It is now established beyond doubt that prisoners have a constitutional right of access to the courts. This Court recognized that right more than 35 years [97 S.Ct. 1495] ago when it struck down a regulation prohibiting state prisoners from filing petitions for habeas corpus unless they were found "`properly

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drawn'" by the "`legal investigator'" for the parole board. Ex parte Hull, 312 U.S. 546 (1941). We held this violated the principle that "the state and its officers may not abridge or impair petitioner's right to apply to a federal court for a writ of habeas corpus." Id. at 549. See also Cochran v. Kansas, 316 U.S. 255 (1942).

More recent decisions have struck down restrictions and required remedial measures to insure that inmate access to the courts is adequate, effective, and meaningful. Thus, in order to prevent "effectively foreclosed access," indigent prisoners must be allowed to file appeals and habeas corpus petitions without payment of docket fees. Burns v. Ohio, 360 U.S. 252, 257 (1959); Smith v. Bennett, 365 U.S. 708 (1961). Because we recognized that "adequate and effective appellate review" is impossible without a trial transcript or adequate substitute, we held that States must provide trial records to inmates unable to buy them. Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12, 20 (1956).8 Similarly, counsel must be appointed

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to give indigent inmates "a meaningful appeal" from their convictions. Douglas v. California, 372 U.S. 353, 358 (1963).

Essentially the same standards of access were applied in Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483 (1969), which struck down a regulation prohibiting prisoners from assisting each other with habeas corpus applications and other legal matters. Since inmates had no alternative form of legal assistance available to them, we reasoned that this ban on jailhouse lawyers effectively prevented prisoners who were "unable themselves, with reasonable adequacy, to prepare their petitions," from challenging the legality of their confinements. Id. at 489. Johnson was unanimously extended to cover assistance in civil rights actions in Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 577-580 (1974). And even as it rejected a claim that indigent defendants have a constitutional right to appointed counsel for discretionary appeals, the Court reaffirmed that States must "assure the indigent defendant an adequate opportunity to present his claims fairly." Ross v. Moffitt, 417 U.S. at 616. "[M]eaningful access" to the courts is the touchstone. See id. at 611, 612, 615.9

Petitioners contend, however, that this constitutional duty merely obliges States to allow inmate "writ writers" to function. [97 S.Ct. 1496] They argue that, under Johnson v. Avery, supra, as long as inmate communications on legal problems are not restricted, there is no further obligation to expend state funds to implement affirmatively the right of access. This argument misreads the cases.

In Johnson and Wolff v. McDonnell, supra, the issue was whether the access rights of ignorant and illiterate inmates were violated without adequate justification. Since these inmates were unable to present their own claims in writing to the courts, we held that their "constitutional right to help,"

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Johnson v. Avery, supra at 502 (WHITE, J., dissenting), required at least allowing assistance from their literate fellows. But, in so holding, we did not attempt to set forth the full breadth of the right of access. In McDonnell, for example, there was already an adequate law library in the prison.10 The case was thus decided against a backdrop of availability of legal...

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