Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

West Virginia Supreme Court Rules on Litigious Prisoners

by John E. Dannenberg

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals reacted to what the Randolph County court perceived to be overly aggressive pro per habeas litigation by two state prisoners. At issue ultimately was the tension between the constitutional right of access to the courts and the abuse of that right.

West Virginia prisoners Jason Lawson, Eugene Blake and eight others filed habeas corpus petitions in 2001 regarding medical care in state prison.
After dismissing the petitions for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, the Randolph County court in 2004 had the $16.50 filing fee deducted from Blake's prison account. Since Blake thought that the case was by then long dead, he objected and asked either for his money back or to have the case therefore "automatically reactivated." Later, Blake wrote the court clerk, "Hopefully, it will not be necessary for me to flood your Office with additional motions and litigations concerning this case." The clerk perceived this as "threatening" and the court then restricted Blake and Lawson from filing anything further in that court that was not signed by a West Virginia licensed attorney. In its order, while the court denied all of their petitions, it recognized the prisoners' right of access to the courts, notwithstanding that threats to the legal system can result in sanctions. Lawson and Blake appealed both the restriction and their habeas denials.

The Supreme Court of Appeals denied their habeas appeals but took a more moderate stance on the restriction question. First, it held that Blake's "threatening" statement was subject to more than one interpretation. The Supreme Court held that the ambiguous wording was insufficient, standing alone, to constitute an implied threat to "abuse the legal process," and would not support such a limiting order as Randolph County had issued. "It cannot be said ... that Blake was engaged in a course of conduct which demonstrated a clear intention to obstruct the administration of justice."

In any event, the Supreme Court of Appeals held that due process required the Randolph County court to at least issue an order to show cause and hear arguments on the question. And when decided, that ruling must be accompanied by sufficient findings of fact and conclusions of law to provide for meaningful appellate review. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the restriction order. See: Mathena v. Haines, 219 W.Va. 417, 633 S.E.2d 771 (W.Va. 2006).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Mathena v. Haines