Procunier v. Martinez 8212 1465

Decision Date29 April 1974
Docket NumberNo. 72,72
Citation40 L.Ed.2d 224,94 S.Ct. 1800,416 U.S. 396
PartiesRaymond K. PROCUNIER, Director, California Department of Corrections, et al., Appellants, v. Robert MARTINEZ et al. —1465
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Appellees, prison inmates, brought this class action challenging prisoner mail censorship regulations issued by the Director of the California Department of Corrections and the ban against the use of law students and legal paraprofessionals to conduct attorney-client interviews with inmates. The mail censorship regulations, inter alia, proscribed inmate correspondence that 'unduly complain(ed),' 'magnif(ied) grievances,' 'express(ed) inflammatory pollitical, racial, religious or other views or beliefs,' or contained matter deemed 'defamatory' or 'otherwise inappropriate.' The District Court held these regulations unconstitutional under the First Amendment, void for vagueness, and violative of the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of procedural due process, and it enjoined their continued enforcement. The court required that an inmate be notified of the rejection of correspondence and that the author of the correspondence be allowed to protest the decision and secure review by a prison official other than the original censor. The District Court also held that the ban against the use of law students and legal paraprofessionals to conduct attorney-client interviews with inmates abridged the right of access to the courts and enjoined its continued enforcement. Appellants contend that the District Court should have abstained from deciding the constitutionality of the mail censorship regulations. Held:

1. The District Court did not err in refusing to abstain from deciding the constitutionality of the mail censorship regulations. Pp. 400—404.

2. The censorship of direct personal correspondence involves incidental restrictions on the right to free speech of both prisoners and their correspondents and is justified if the following criteria are met: (1) it must further one or more of the important and substantial governmental interests of security, order, and the rehabilitation of inmates, and (2) it must be no greater than is necessary to further the legitimate governmental interest involved. Pp. 404—414.

3. Under this standard the invalidation of the mail censorship regulations by the District Court was correct. Pp. 415 416.

4. The decision to censor or withhold delivery of a particular letter must be accompanied by minimum procedural safeguards against arbitrariness or error, and the requirements specified by the District Court were not unduly burdensome. Pp. 417—419.

5. The ban against attorney-client interviews conducted by law students or legal paraprofessionals, which was not limited to prospective interviewers who posed some colorable threat to security or to those inmates thought to be especially dangerous and which created an arbitrary distinction between law students employed by attorneys and those associated with law school programs (against whom the ban did not operate), constituted an unjustifiable restriction on the inmates' right of access to the courts. Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483, 89 S.Ct. 747, 21 L.Ed.2d 718, Pp. 419—422.

354 F.Supp. 1092, affirmed.

W. Eric Collins, San Francisco, Cal., for appellants.

William Bennett Turner, San Francisco, Cal., for appellees.

Mr. Justice POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case concerns the constitutionality of certain regulations promulgated by appellant Procunier in his capacity as Director of the California Department of Corrections. Appellees brought a class action on behalf of themselves and all other inmates of penal institutions under the Department's jurisdiction to challenge the rules relating to censorship of prisoner mail and the ban against the use of law students and legal paraprofessionals to conduct attorney-client interviews with inmates. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2281 a three-judge United States District Court was convened to hear appellees' request for declaratory and injunctive relief. That court entered summary judgment enjoining continued enforcement of the rules in question and ordering appellants to submit new regulations for the court's approval. 354 F.Supp. 1092 (N.D.Cal.1973). Appellants' first revisions resulted in counterproposals by appellees and a court order issued May 30, 1973, requiring further modification of the proposed rules. The second set of revised regulations was approved by the District Court on July 20, 1973, over appellees' objections. While the first proposed revisions of the Department's regulations were pending before the District Court, appellants brought this appeal to contest that court's decision holding the original regulations unconstitutional.

We noted probable jurisdiction. 412 U.S. 948, 93 S.Ct. 3013, 37 L.Ed.2d 1000 (1973). We affirm.


First we consider the constitutionality of the Director's rules restricting the personal correspondence of prison inmates. Under these regulations correspondence be- tween inmates of California penal institutions and persons other than licensed attorneys and holders of public office was censored for nonconformity to certain standards. Rule 2401 stated the Department's general premise that personal correspondence by prisoners is 'a privilege, not a right . . ..'1 More detailed regulations implemented the Department's policy. Rule 1201 directed inmates not to write letters in which they 'unduly complain' or 'magnify grievances.'2 Rule 1205(d) defined as contraband writings 'expressing inflammatory political, racial, religious or other views or beliefs . . ..'3 Finally, Rule 2402(8) provided that inmates 'may not send or receive letters that pertain to criminal activity are lewd, obscene, or defamatory; contain foreign matter, or are otherwise inappropriate.'4

Prison employees screened both incoming and outgoing personal mail for violations of these regulations. No further criteria were provided to help members of the mailroom staff decide whether a particular letter contravened any prison rule or policy. When a prison employee found a letter objectionable, he could take one or more of the following actions: (1) refuse to mail or deliver the letter and return it to the author; (2) submit a disciplinary report, which could lead to suspension of mail privileges or other sanctions; or (3) place a copy of the letter or a summary of its contents in the prisoner's file, where it might be a factor in determining the inmate's work and housing assignments and in setting a date for parole eligibility.

The District Court held that the regulations relating to prisoner mail authorized censorship of protected expression without adequate justification in violation of the First Amendment and that they were void for vagueness. The court also noted that the regulations failed to provide minimum procedural safeguards against error and arbitrariness in the censorship of inmate correspondence. Consequently, it enjoined their continued enforcement.

Appellants contended that the District Court should have abstained from deciding these questions. In that court appellants advanced no reason for abstention other than the assertion that the federal court should defer to the California courts on the basis of comity. The District Court properly rejected this suggestion, noting that the mere possibility that a state court might declare the prison regulations unconstitutional is no ground for abstention. Wisconsin v. Constantineau, 400 U.S. 433, 439, 91 S.Ct. 507, 511, 27 L.Ed.2d 515 (1971).

Appellants now contend that we should vacate the judgment and remand the case to the District Court with instructions to abstain on the basis of two arguments not presented to it. First, they contend that any vagueness challenge to an uninterpreted state statute or regulation is a proper case for abstention. According to appellants, '(t)he very statement by the district court that the regulations are vague constitutes a compelling reason for abstention.' Brief for Appellants 8—9. As this Court made plain in Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360, 84 S.Ct. 1316, 12 L.Ed.2d 377 (1964), however, not every vagueness challenge to an uninterpreted state statute or regulation constitutes a proper case for abstention.5 But we need not decide whether appellants' contention is controlled by the analysis in Baggett, for the short answer to their argument is that these regulations were neither challenged nor invalidated solely on the ground of vagueness. Appellees also asserted, and the District Court found, that the rules relating to prisoner mail permitted censorship of constitutionally protected expression without adequate justification. In light of the successful First Amendment attack on these regulations, the District Court's conclusion that they were also unconstitutionally vague hardly 'constitutes a compelling reason for abstention.'

As a second ground for abstention appellants rely on Cal.Penal Code § 2600(4), which assures prisoners the right to receive books, magazines, and periodicals. 6 Although the did not advance this argument to the District Court, appellants now contend that the interpretation of the statute by the state courts and its application to the regulations governing prisoner mail might avoid or modify the constitutional questions decided below. Thus appellants seek to establish the essential prerequisite for abstention—'an uncertain issue of state law,' the resolution of which may eliminate or materially alter the federal constitutional question.7 Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 534, 85 S.Ct. 1177, 1181, 14 L.Ed.2d 50 (1965). We are not persuaded.

A state court interpretation of § 2600(4) would not avoid of substantially modify the constitutional question presented here. That statute does not contain any provision purporting to regulate censorship of personal correspondence, It only preserves the right of inmates to receive 'newspapers, periodicals,...

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