This litigation, to vindicate prisoners' rights to meaningful access to the courts, began in the early 1970s as three separate lawsuits filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. The court consolidated Smith v. Bounds, No. 3052, Morgan v. Turner, No. 4277, and Harrington v. Holshouser, No. 709. The plaintiffs, represented by private and court-appointed counsel, sought injunctive relief against North Carolina, its Department of Corrections, and corrections officials and wardens associated with the Central State Prison and the Odom Correctional Institute.
In 1974, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs. The court ordered the State to ensure that inmates, regardless of indigence, had access to the courts. The plaintiffs asked the court to mandate an attorney assistance program, under which the State would pay for legal counsel for inmates. The court acknowledged the benefits of an attorney assistance program, but recognized that the State should be allowed to choose how to meet its constitutional obligations. North Carolina decided to build law libraries at seven of its eighty facilities, furnish legal supplies and copies for indigent inmates, and train inmates to work as paralegals. Prisoners incarcerated in other facilities could request temporary transfer to one of the facilities with law libraries. The court approved the plan and both parties appealed.
On September 30, 1975, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (Judge Donald Russell) affirmed the lower court's ruling, upholding the State's constitutional obligation to ensure inmates' access to the courts while also recognizing that law libraries and attorney assistance were both independently sufficient to meet this obligation. The Fourth Circuit, however, modified the State's plan to better address female inmates' access to the courts. The United States Supreme Court granted the plaintiffs' petition for a writ of certiorari on April 5, 1976. Bounds v. Smith, 425 U.S. 910 (1976).
On April 27, 1977, the Supreme Court (Justice Thurgood Marshall) affirmed, holding that a prisoner's constitutional right of access to the courts could be protected either with access to law libraries or with an attorney assistance program. Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977). The Court defined the right of access to the courts as the right to file meaningful legal papers. In so doing, the Court affirmed and explained its per curiam opinion in Younger v. Gilmore, 404 U.S. 15 (1971). Concurring, one justice (Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr.), emphasized that the inmate's complaint could be filed in either a state or federal court. Two justices (Justice William H. Rehnquist and Chief Justice Warren E. Burger) dissented, arguing that the origin of an inmate's right of access to the courts was statutory, not constitutional, and could consequently only impose a negative duty on the states. A third dissenting justice (Justice Potter Stewart) argued that access to a law library was not sufficient alone to guarantee meaningful access to the courts for inmates.
Following the Supreme Court's decision, North Carolina implemented its law library plan. In 1978, the district court dismissed the lawsuit after finding that the law library plan was fully functional. The plaintiffs appealed, challenging the district court's determination that the State had fulfilled its duty under the law library plan. On May 14, 1979, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded without opinion. Harrington v. Holshouser, 598 F.2d 614 (4th Cir. 1979). On April 18, 1983, the district court again concluded that the law library program had been successfully implemented and dismissed the lawsuit.
On appeal, the plaintiffs alleged that the State had not sufficiently implemented four components of the law library plan. Specifically, the plaintiffs claimed that (1) inmate paralegals had been inadequately trained, in fact only one inmate was ever trained, (2) the State continued to charge indigent inmates for legal photocopying, (3) inmates in disciplinary segregation were not permitted access to the law libraries, and (4) the practice of temporarily transferring inmates to law library facilities was not sufficient to provide all inmates with access to the courts. On August 14, 1984, the Fourth Circuit (Judge James M. Sprouse) held that the State had offered insufficient evidence of the implementation of the program, except on segregated inmates' access to the law library. Harrington v. Holshouser, 741 F.2d 66 (1984). On that issue, the court concluded that policies prohibiting inmates from being isolated for more than 15 consecutive days allowed inmates constitutionally sufficient access to the courts. The appellate court remanded the remaining issues for reconsideration.
The State failed to respond to court orders for evidence of compliance. On May 14, 1985, the district court (Judge Franklin T. Dupree) interpreted the State's unresponsiveness as evidence that the State had not complied with the law library plan. Smith v. Bounds, 610 F. Supp. 597 (E.D.N.C. 1985), reconsideration denied, 657 F. Supp. 1322 (E.D.N.C. 1985), aff'd, 813 F.2d 1299 (4th Cir. 1987), reh'g en banc granted, 821 F.2d 222 (4th Cir. 1987), aff'd 841 F.2d 77 (4th Cir. 1988). Discouraged by the State's failure to comply with its own plan after a decade, the court withdrew its approval of the law library plan. Instead, the court ordered the State to provide all inmates with attorney assistance and ordered both parties to suggest how such a system could be organized.
On April 10, 1986, the court rejected the State's attorney assistance plan, which it criticized as allowing prison officials too much influence over inmates' litigation. Smith v. Bounds, 657 F. Supp. 1327 (E.D.N.C. 1986). The court adopted a plan for an attorney assistance program patterned on their proposal, noting that the State had failed to contest any part of either of the two plans submitted by the plaintiffs. The plan approved by the court required North Carolina to contract with Legal Services of North Carolina to directly provide inmates with legal counsel. The defendants appealed but, on October 3, 1988, the Supreme Court denied North Carolina's petition for a writ of certiorari and granted the plaintiffs' request to proceed in forma pauperis. Bounds v. Smith, 488 U.S. 869 (1988).
On March 24, 1997, the district court (Judge James C. Fox) refused to lift the attorney assistance injunction in response to the enactment of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which amended 18 U.S.C. § 3626. The court reasoned that the injunction was not moot merely because it lacked an express statement that the injunction had been narrowly drawn. However, the court conceded that the State would be within its rights to seek termination of the injunction after one year.
We lack the docket for this lawsuit and do not know whether the State sought termination of the injunction in 1998.Elizabeth Chilcoat - 06/23/2006