Johnson v. Avery

Decision Date14 November 1968
Docket NumberNo. 40,40
Citation89 S.Ct. 747,21 L.Ed.2d 718,393 U.S. 483
PartiesWilliam Joe JOHNSON, Petitioner, v. Harry S. AVERY, Commissioner of Correction, et al. rgued
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Karl P. Warden, Nashville, Tenn., for petitioner.

Thomas E. Fox, Nashville, Tenn., for respondents.

Mr. Justice FORTAS delivered the opinion of the Court.


Petitioner is serving a life sentence in the Tennessee State Penitentiary. In February 1965 he was transferred to the maximum security building in the prison for violation of a prison regulation which provides:

'No inmate will advise, assist or otherwise contract to aid another, either with or without a fee, to prepare Writs or other legal matters. It is not intended that an innocent man be punished. When a man believes he is unlawfully held or illegally convicted, he should prepare a brief or state his complaint in letter form and address it to his lawyer or a judge. A formal Writ is not necessary to receive a hearing. False charges or untrue complaints may be punished. Inmates are forbidden to set themselves up as practitioners for the purpose of promoting a business of writing Writs.'

In July 1965 petitioner filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee a 'motion for law books and a typewriter,' in which he sought relief from his confinement in the maximum security building. The District Court treated this motion as a petition for a writ of habeas corpus and, after a hearing, ordered him released from disciplinary confinement and restored to the status of an ordinary prisoner. The District Court held that the regulation was void because it in effect barred illiterate prisoners from access to federal habeas corpus and conflicted with 28 U.S.C. § 2242.1 252 F.Supp. 783.

By the time the District Court order was entered, petitioner had been transferred from the maximum security building, but he had been put in a disciplinary cell block in which he was entitled to fewer privileges than were given ordinary prisoners. Only when he promised to refrain from assistance to other inmates was he restored to regular prison conditions and privileges. At a second hearing, held in March 1966, the District Court explored these issues concerning the compliance of the prison officials with its initial order. After the hearing, it reaffirmed its earlier order.

The State appealed. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, concluding that the regulation did not unlawfully conflict with the federal right of habeas corpus. According to the Sixth Circuit, the interest of the State in preserving prison discipline and in limiting the practice of law to licensed attorneys justified whatever burden the regulation might place on access to federal habeas corpus. 382 F.2d 353.


This Court has constantly emphasized the fundamental importance of the writ of habeas corpus in our constitutional scheme,2 and the Congress has demonstrated its solicitude for the vigor of the Great Writ.3 The Court has steadfastly insisted that 'there is no higher duty than to maintain it unimpaired.' Bowen v. Johnston, 306 U.S. 19, 26, 59 S.Ct. 442, 446, 83 L.Ed. 455 (1939).

Since the basic purpose of the writ is to enable those unlawfully incarcerated to obtain their freedom, it is fundamental that access of prisoners to the courts for the purpose of presenting their complaints may not be denied or obstructed. For example, the Court has held that a State may not validly make the writ available only to prisoners who could pay a $4 filing fee. Smith v. Bennett, 365 U.S. 708, 81 S.Ct. 895, 6 L.Ed.2d 39 (1961). And it has insisted that, for the indigent as well as for the affluent prisoner, post-conviction proceedings must be more than a formality. For instance, the State is obligated to furnish prisoners not otherwise able to obtain it, with a transcript or equivalent recordation of prior habeas corpus hearings for use in further proceedings. Long v. District Court, 385 U.S. 192, 87 S.Ct. 362, 17 L.Ed.2d 290 (1966). Cf. Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12, 76 S.Ct. 585, 100 L.Ed. 891 (1956).

Tennessee urges, however, that the contested regulation in this case is justified as a part of the State's disciplinary administration of the prisons. There is no doubt that discipline and administration of state detention facilities are state functions. They are subject to federal authority only where paramount federal constitutional or statutory rights supervene. It is clear, however, that in instances where state regulations applicable to inmates of prison facilities conflict with such rights, the regulations may be invalidated.

For example, in Lee v. Washington, 390 U.S. 333, 88 S.Ct. 994, 19 L.Ed.2d 1212 (1968), the practice of racial segregation of prisoners was justified by the State as necessary to maintain good order and discipline. We held, however, that the practice was constitutionally prohibited, although we were careful to point out that the order of the District Court, which we affirmed, made allowance for 'the necessities of prison security and discipline.' Id., at 334, 88 S.Ct. at 994. And in Ex parte Hull, 312 U.S. 546, 61 S.Ct. 640, 85 L.Ed. 1034 (1941), this Court invalidated a state regulation which required that habeas corpus petitions first be submitted to prison authorities and then approved by the 'legal investigator' to the parole board as 'properly drawn' before being transmitted to the court. Here again, the State urged that the requirement was necessary to maintain prison discipline. But this Court held that the regulation 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.' 312 U.S., at 549, 61 S.Ct., at 642. Cf. Cochran v. Kansas, 316 U.S. 255, 257, 62 S.Ct. 1068, 1069, 86 L.Ed. 1453 (1942).

There can be no doubt that Tennessee could not constitutionally adopt and enforce a rule forbidding illiterate or poorly educated prisoners to file habeas corpus petitions. Here Tennessee has adopted a rule which, in the absence of any other source of assistance for such prisoners, effectively does just that. The District Court concluded that '(f)or all practical purposes, if such prisoners cannot have the assistance of a 'jailhouse lawyer,' their possibly valid constitutional claims will never be heard in any court.' 252 F.Supp., at 784. The record supports this conclusion.

Jails and penitentiaries include among their inmates a high percentage of persons who are totally or functionally illiterate, whose educational attainments are slight, and whose intelligence is limited.4 This appears to be equally true of Tennessee's prison facilities.5

In most federal courts, it is the practice to appoint counsel in post-conviction proceedings only after a petition for post-conviction relief passes initial judicial evaluation and the court has determined that issues are presented calling for an evidentiary hearing. E.g., Taylor v. Pegelow, 335 F.2d 147 (C.A.4th Cir. 1964); United States ex rel. Marshall v. Wilkins, 338 F.2d 404 (C.A.2d Cir. 1964). See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d); R. Sokol, A Handbook of Federal Habeas Corpus 71—73 (1965).6 It has not been held that there is any general obligation of the courts, state or federal, to appoint counsel for prisoners who indicate, without more, that they wish to eek post-conviction relief. See, e.g., Barker v. Ohio, 330 F.2d 594 (C.A.6th Cir. 1964). Accordingly, the initial burden of presenting a claim to post-conviction relief usually rests upon the indigent prisoner himself with such help as he can obtain within the prison walls or the prison system. In the case of all except those who are able to help themselves—usually a few old hands or exceptionally gifted prisoners—the prisoner is, in effect, denied access to the courts unless such help is available.

It is indisputable that prison 'writ writers' like petitioner are sometimes a menace to prison discipline and that their petitioners are often so unskillful as to be a burden on the courts which receive them.7 But, as this Court held in Ex parte Hull, supra, in declaring invalid a state prison regulation which required that prosoners' legal pleadings be screened by state officials:

'The considerations that prompted (the regulation's) formulation are not without merit, but 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.' 312 U.S., at 549, 61 S.Ct., at 642.

Tennessee does not provide an available alternative to the assistance provided by other inmates. The warden of the prison in which petitioner was confined stated that the prison provided free notarization of prisoners' petitions. That obviously meets only a formal requirement. He also indicated that he sometimes allowed prisoners to examine the listing of attorneys in the Nashville telephone directory so they could select one to write to in an effort to interest him in taking the case, and that 'on several occasions' he had contacted the public defender at the request of an inmate. There is no contention, however, that there is any regular system of assistance by public defenders. In its brief the State contends that '(t)here is absolutely no reason to believe that prison officials would fail to notify the court should an inmate advise them of a complete inability, either mental or physical, to prepare a habeas application on his own behalf,' but there is no contention that they have in fact ever done so.

This is obviously far short of the showing required to demonstrate that, in depriving prisoners of the assistance of fellow inmates. Tennessee has not, in substance, deprived those unable themselves, with reasonable adequacy, to prepare their petitions, of access to the constitutionally and statutorily protected availability of the writ of habeas corpus. By contrast, in several States,8 the public defender system supplies trained attorneys, paid...

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