Murray v. Giarratano

Decision Date23 June 1989
Docket NumberNo. 88-411,88-411
Citation492 U.S. 1,106 L.Ed.2d 1,109 S.Ct. 2765
PartiesEdward W. MURRAY, Director, Virginia Department of Corrections, et al., Petitioners v. Joseph M. GIARRATANO, Johnny Watkins, Jr., and Richard T. Boggs, et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Respondents, a class of indigent Virginia death row inmates who do not have counsel to pursue postconviction proceedings, brought a suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the District Court against various state officials, alleging that the Constitution required that they be provided with counsel at the State's expense for the purpose of pursuing collateral proceedings related to their convictions and sentences. The District Court concluded that respondents should receive greater assistance than that outlined in Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 97 S.Ct. 1491, 52 L.Ed.2d 72—which held that a prisoner's "right of access" to the courts required a State to furnish access to adequate law libraries or other legal aid so the prisoners might prepare petitions for judicial relief—since death row inmates have a limited amount of time to prepare petitions, since their cases are unusually complex, and since the shadow of impending execution interferes with their ability to do legal work. It found that Virginia's efforts—access to a law library or lawbooks, the availability of "unit attorneys," and appointment of counsel after a petition is filed—did not afford prisoners meaningful access to the courts because they did not guarantee the prisoners continuous assistance of counsel. Thus, it ordered Virginia to develop a program for the appointment of counsel, upon request, to indigent death row inmates wishing to pursue habeas corpus in state court, but, in light of Ross v. Moffitt, 417 U.S. 600, 94 S.Ct. 2437, 41 L.Ed.2d 341, not in federal court. The Court of Appeals affirmed. It viewed the lower court's special "considerations" relating to death row inmates as findings of fact which were not clearly erroneous. It reasoned that the case was not controlled by Pennsylvania v. Finley, 481 U.S. 551, 107 S.Ct. 1990, 95 L.Ed.2d 539—which held that neither the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment nor the equal protection guarantee of "meaningful access" required the State to appoint counsel for indigent prisoners seeking postconviction relief—since Finley was not a "meaningful access" case, since it did not address the rule enunciated in Bounds, and since it did not involve the death penalty.

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.

847 F.2d 1118 (CA4 1988), reversed and remanded.

THE CHIEF JUSTICE, joined by Justice WHITE, Justice O'CONNOR, and Justice SCALIA, concluded that neither the Eighth Amendment nor the Due Process Clause requires States to appoint counsel for indigent death row inmates seeking state postconv ction relief. Pp. 7-13.

(a) This Court's decisions require the conclusion that the rule of Pennsylvania v. Finley should apply no differently in capital cases than in noncapital cases. See, e.g., Smith v. Murray, 477 U.S. 527, 106 S.Ct. 2661, 91 L.Ed.2d 434. State collateral proceedings are not constitutionally required as an adjunct to the state criminal proceeding and serve a different and more limited purpose than either the trial or appeal. Eighth Amendment safeguards imposed at the trial stage—where the court and jury hear testimony, receive evidence, and decide the question of guilt and punishment—are sufficient to assure the reliability of the process by which the death penalty is imposed. Pp. 7-10.

(b) There is no inconsistency whatever between the holdings in Bounds and Finley. The right of access at issue in Bounds rests on a constitutional theory considered in Finley. Extending Bounds would partially overrule the subsequently decided Finley and would reject a categorical rule—the usual tack taken in right to counsel cases—for the adoption of a case-by-case determination based on "factual" findings, which, under a "clearly-erroneous" standard, could result in different constitutional rules being applied in different States. Pp. 10-13.

Justice KENNEDY, joined by Justice O'CONNOR, concluded that Virginia's scheme for securing representation for indigent death row inmates does not violate the Constitution. Although Virginia's procedures are not as far reaching and effective as those available in other States, no Virginia death row inmates have been unable to obtain counsel to represent them in postconviction proceedings, and Virginia's prison system is staffed by institutional lawyers to assist inmates in such matters. Bounds' meaningful-access requirement can be satisfied in various ways, and state legislatures and prison administrators must be given "wide discretion" to select appropriate solutions from a range of complex options. Pp. 14-15.

REHNQUIST, C.J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which WHITE, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 13. KENNEDY, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which O'CONNOR, J., joined, post, p. 14. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 15.

Robert Q. Harris, for petitioners.

Gerald T. Zerkin, Richmond, Va., for respondents.

Chief Justice REHNQUIST announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which Justice WHITE, Justice O'CONNOR, and Justice SCALIA join.

Virginia death row inmates brought a civil rights suit against various officials of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The prisoners claimed, based on several theories, that the Constitution required that they be provided with counsel at the Commonwealth's expense for the purpose of pursuing collateral proceedings related to their convictions and sentences. The courts below ruled that appointment of counsel upon request was necessary for the prisoners to enjoy their constitutional right to access to the courts in pursuit of state habeas corpus relief. We think this holding is inconsistent with our decision two Terms ago in Pennsylvania v. Finley, 481 U.S. 551, 107 S.Ct. 1990, 95 L.Ed.2d 539 (1987), and rests on a misreading of our decision in Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 97 S.Ct. 1491, 52 L.Ed.2d 72 (1977).

Joseph M. Giarratano is a Virginia prisoner under a sentence of death. He initiated this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, by pro se complaint in Federal District Court, against various state officials including Edward W. Murray who is the Director of the Virginia Department of Corrections. Some months later, the District Court certified a class comprising all current and future Virginia inmates awaiting execution who do not have and cannot afford counsel to pursue postconviction proceedings.1 The inmates asserted a number of constitutional theories for an entitlement to appointed counsel and the case was tried to the court.

After the evidence, post-trial briefs, and other memoranda, the District Court expressed "serious doubts as to the viability of many of th[e] theories." 668 F.Supp. 511, 512 (E.D.Va.1986). It was, however, "satisfied that the United States Supreme Court's decision in Bounds dictates that the plaintiffs here be granted some form of relief." Ibid. The District Court noted three special "considerations" relating to death row inmates that it believed required that these inmates receive greater assistance than Bounds had outlined. It found that death row inmates had a limited amount of time to prepare their petitions, that their cases were unusually complex, and that the shadow of impending execution would interfere with their ability to do legal work. These "consid- erations" led the court to believe that the "plaintiffs are incapable of effectively using lawbooks to raise their claims." As a result, it found that Virginia's policy of either allowing death row inmates time in the prison law library or permitting them to have lawbooks sent to their cells did "little to satisfy Virginia's obligation."2 668 F.Supp., at 513. "Virginia must fulfill its duty by providing these inmates trained legal assistance." Ibid.

The District Court then evaluated the avenues by which inmates convicted of capital crimes could obtain the aid of counsel in Virginia. It found inadequate the availability of "unit attorneys" appointed by Virginia to the various penal institutions to assist inmates in incarceration-related litigation. Id., at 514. Further, it found that "[e]ven if Virginia appointed additional institutional attorneys to service death row inmates, its duty under Bounds would not be fulfilled" because, acting "only as legal advisors," "[t]he scope of assistance these attorneys provide is simply too limited." Ibid. Along the same lines, the District Court concluded that Virginia's provisions for appointment of counsel after a petition is filed did not cure the problem.3 This was primarily because "the timing of the appointment is a fatal defect" as the inmate "would not receive the attorney's assistance in the critical stages of developing his claims." Id., at 515.

Even together, Virginia's efforts did not afford prisoners a meaningful right of access to the courts, in the opinion of the District Court, because they did not guarantee them "the continuous assistance of counsel." Ibid. With what the District Court feared was the imminent depletion of the pool of volunteer attorneys willing to help Virginia death row inmates attack their convictions and sentences, the court felt that "[t]he stakes are simply too high for this Court not to grant, at least in part, some relief." It therefore ordered Virginia to develop a program for the appointment of counsel, upon request, to indigent death row inmates wishing to pursue habeas corpus in state court. Id., at 517. It decided, however, that the decision in Ross v. Moffitt, 417 U.S. 600, 94 S.Ct. 2437, 41 L.Ed.2d 341 (1974), indicated that Virginia had no similar constitutional obligation to appoint cou...

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