Lewis v. Casey

Decision Date24 June 1996
Docket NumberNo. 94–1511.,94–1511.
Citation518 U.S. 343,135 L.Ed.2d 606,116 S.Ct. 2174
Parties Samuel A. LEWIS, Director, Arizona Department Of ment Of Corrections, et al., Petitioners, v. Fletcher CASEY, Jr., et al.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Grant Woods, Phoenix, AZ, for petitioners.

Elizabeth Alexander, Washington, DC, for respondents.

Justice SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 97 S.Ct. 1491, 52 L.Ed.2d 72 (1977), we held that "the fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts requires 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." Id., at 828, 97 S.Ct., at 1498. Petitioners, who are officials of the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADOC), contend that the United States District Court for the District of Arizona erred in finding them in violation of Bounds, and that the court's remedial order exceeded lawful authority.


Respondents are 22 inmates of various prisons operated by ADOC. In January 1990, they filed this class action "on behalf of all adult prisoners who are or will be incarcerated by the State of Arizona Department of Corrections," App. 22, alleging that petitioners were "depriving [respondents] of their rights of access to the courts and counsel protected by the First, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments," id., at 34. Following a 3–month bench trial, the District Court ruled in favor of respondents, finding that "[p]risoners have a constitutional right of access to the courts that is adequate, effective and meaningful," 834 F.Supp. 1553, 1566 (1992), citing Bounds, supra, at 822, 97 S.Ct., at 1495, and that "[ADOC's] system fails to comply with constitutional standards," 834 F.Supp., at 1569. The court identified a variety of shortcomings of the ADOC system, in matters ranging from the training of library staff, to the updating of legal materials, to the availability of photocopying services. In addition to these generalfindings, the court found that two groups of inmates were particularly affected by the system's inadequacies: "[l]ockdown prisoners" (inmates segregated from the general prison population for disciplinary or security reasons), who "are routinely denied physical access to the law library" and "experience severe interference with their access to the courts," id., at 1556; and illiterate or non-English-speaking inmates, who do not receive adequate legal assistance, id., at 1558.

Having thus found liability, the court appointed a Special Master "to investigate and report about" the appropriate relief—that is (in the court's view), "how best to accomplish the goal of constitutionally adequate inmate access to the courts." App. to Pet. for Cert. 87a. Following eight months of investigation, and some degree of consultation with both parties, the Special Master lodged with the court a proposed permanent injunction, which the court proceeded to adopt, substantially unchanged. The 25–page injunctive order, see id., at 61a–85a, mandated sweeping changes designed to ensure that ADOC would "provide meaningful access to the Courts for all present and future prisoners," id., at 61a. It specified in minute detail the times that libraries were to be kept open, the number of hours of library use to which each inmate was entitled (10 per week), the minimal educational requirements for prison librarians (a library science degree, law degree, or paralegal degree), the content of a videotaped legal-research course for inmates (to be prepared by persons appointed by the Special Master but funded by ADOC), and similar matters. Id., at 61a, 67a, 71a. The injunction addressed the court's concern for lockdown prisoners by ordering that "ADOC prisoners in all housing areas and custody levels shall be provided regular and comparable visits to the law library," except that such visits "may be postponed on an individual basis because of the prisoner's documented inability to use the law library without creating a threat to safety or security, or a physical condition if determined by medical personnel to prevent library use." Id., at 61a. With respect to illiterate and non-English-speaking inmates, the injunction declared that they were entitled to "direct assistance" from lawyers, paralegals, or "a sufficient number of at least minimally trained prisoner Legal Assistants"; it enjoined ADOC that "[p]articular steps must be taken to locate and train bilingual prisoners to be Legal Assistants." Id., at 69a–70a.

Petitioners sought review in the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which refused to grant a stay prior to argument. We then stayed the injunction pending filing and disposition of a petition for a writ of certiorari. 511 U.S. 1066, 114 S.Ct. 1638, 128 L.Ed.2d 360 (1994). Several months later, the Ninth Circuit affirmed both the finding of a Bounds violation and, with minor exceptions not important here, the terms of the injunction. 43 F.3d 1261 (1994). We granted certiorari, 514 U.S. 1126, 115 S.Ct. 1997, 131 L.Ed.2d 999 (1995).


Although petitioners present only one question for review, namely, whether the District Court's order "exceeds the constitutional requirements set forth in Bounds, " Brief for Petitioners (i), they raise several distinct challenges, including renewed attacks on the court's findings of Bounds violations with respect to illiterate, non-English-speaking, and lockdown prisoners, and on the breadth of the injunction. But their most fundamental contention is that the District Court's findings of injury were inadequate to justify the finding of systemwide injury and hence the granting of systemwide relief. This argument has two related components. First, petitioners claim that in order to establish a violation of Bounds, an inmate must show that the alleged inadequacies of a prison's library facilities or legal assistance program caused him "actual injury"—that is, "actual prejudice with respect to contemplated or existing litigation, such as the inability to meet a filing deadline or to present a claim."

Brief for Petitioners 30.1 Second, they claim that the District Court did not find enough instances of actual injury to warrant systemwide relief. We agree that the success of respondents' systemic challenge was dependent on their ability to show widespread actual injury, and that the court's failure to identify anything more than isolated instances of actual injury renders its finding of a systemic Bounds violation invalid.


The requirement that an inmate alleging a violation of Bounds must show actual injury derives ultimately from the doctrine of standing, a constitutional principle that prevents courts of law from undertaking tasks assigned to the political branches. See Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 750–752, 104 S.Ct. 3315, 3324–3325, 82 L.Ed.2d 556 (1984) ; Valley Forge Christian College v. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Inc., 454 U.S. 464, 471–476, 102 S.Ct. 752, 757–761, 70 L.Ed.2d 700 (1982). It is the role of courts to provide relief to claimants, in individual or class actions, who have suffered, or will imminently suffer, actual harm; it is not the role of courts, but that of the political branches, to shape the institutions of government in such fashion as to comply with the laws and the Constitution. In the context of the present case: It is for the courts to remedy past or imminent official interference with individual inmates' presentation of claims to the courts; it is for the political branches of the State and Federal Governments to manage prisons in such fashion that official interference with the presentation of claims will not occur.

Of course, the two roles briefly and partially coincide when a court, in granting relief against actual harm that has been suffered, or that will imminently be suffered, by a particular individual or class of individuals, orders the alteration of an institutional organization or procedure that causes the harm. But the distinction between the two roles would be obliterated if, to invoke intervention of the courts, no actual or imminent harm were needed, but merely the status of being subject to a governmental institution that was not organized or managed properly. If—to take another example from prison life—a healthy inmate who had suffered no deprivation of needed medical treatment were able to claim violation of his constitutional right to medical care, see Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 103, 97 S.Ct. 285, 290, 50 L.Ed.2d 251 (1976), simply on the ground that the prison medical facilities were inadequate, the essential distinction between judge and executive would have disappeared: it would have become the function of the courts to assure adequate medical care in prisons.

The foregoing analysis would not be pertinent here if, as respondents seem to assume, the right at issue—the right to which the actual or threatened harm must pertain—were the right to a law library or to legal assistance. But Bounds established no such right, any more than Estelle established a right to a prison hospital. The right that Bounds acknowledged was the (already well-established) right of access to the courts. E.g., Bounds, 430 U.S., at 817, 821, 828, 97 S.Ct., at 1492–1493, 1494, 1498. In the cases to which Bounds traced its roots, we had protected that right by prohibiting state prison officials from actively interfering with inmates' attempts to prepare legal documents, e.g., Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483, 484, 489–490, 89 S.Ct. 747, 748, 750–751, 21 L.Ed.2d 718 (1969), or file them, e.g., Ex parte Hull, 312 U.S. 546, 547–549, 61 S.Ct. 640, 640–642, 85 L.Ed. 1034 (1941), and by requiring state courts to waive filing fees, e.g., Burns v. Ohio, 360 U.S. 252, 258, 79 S.Ct. 1164, 1168–1169, 3 L.Ed.2d 1209 (1959), or transcript fees, e.g., Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12, 19, 76 S.Ct. 585, 590–591, 100...

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