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Prisoner Education Guide

Eighth Circuit: Iowa Prisoner’s Denial-Of-Court-Access Ruling Reversed

The Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed a district court § 1983 judgment that had found Iowa’s contract attorney arrangement (in lieu of a law library) had denied an Iowa prisoner’s constitutional right of access to the courts. The court also awarded him nominal damages ($1) for loss of a § 1983 claim. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit held that the prisoner’s underlying complaint of wrongful extradition was meritless and that he had defaulted on his § 1983 complaint by filing untimely.

Duane White was arrested by Iowa authorities in Iowa in 1999 for committing a crime there as well as for an outstanding warrant from South Dakota. He pled guilty in both states. In Iowa, his plea agreement was predicated upon his agreement not to seek any post-conviction legal relief on his Iowa conviction. After doing 2 ½ years in Iowa, he was transferred to South Dakota in July 2002.

However, prior to White’s Iowa incarceration, Iowa had discontinued its law libraries in favor of providing contract attorneys to meet with prisoners several days each month, for 15 minute sessions. There, the attorneys answered simple questions and provided basic legal forms. White was dissatisfied with this service and in March 2002, filed a grievance on Iowa’s legal access program. After exhausting remedies, he filed a § 1983 complaint in U.S. District (D. Iowa) wherein the court found Iowa’s legal assistance system was “an unconstitutional impediment to ... the courts.” White v. Kautzky, 386 F. Supp.2d 1042, 1057 (N.D. Iowa 2005). The court determined that White’s “actual injury” was his loss of another § 1983 complaint he had filed. Iowa appealed.

The Eighth Circuit reviewed just what legal access is guaranteed. It found that while no access is guaranteed for prisoner grievances, nonfrivolous complaints affecting one’s conviction may not be impeded. Additionally, one must demonstrate “actual injury,” i.e., that they lost a cause because of such denial of access. Construing White’s allegations liberally, the court recognized two potential claims.

First, White claimed that his extradition between Iowa and South Dakota was procedurally flawed and that his convictions were therefore illegally obtained. The Eighth Circuit found that any such error, even “forcible abduction,” would not taint the conviction that was otherwise lawfully proper. In any event, it observed that petitioning for post-conviction relief on extradition challenges was not permitted under Iowa law.

Second, White’s claim of actual injury (loss of his § 1983 claim) was reversed when the Eighth Circuit noted that both his grievance and his complaint were filed more than the statutory two years after the alleged improper convictions. Thus, White was in procedural default. Accordingly the court declined to reach White’s other complaint that Iowa’s contract attorney system failed to provide him with meaningful access to the courts. The district court’s judgment was reversed and vacated. See: White v. Kautzky, 494 F.3d 677 (8th Cir. 2007).

Since the supreme court decided Lewis v. Casey, 116 S.Ct. 2174 (1996) it has become virtually impossible for prisoners to prevail on court access claims. In fact, PLN has reported two successful court access claims since 1996, and the district court ruling in this case was one of them. By requiring “actual injury” the court imposed a Catch 22 situation on prisoners: first they need to get into court and successfully show that but for the lack of a law library, counsel, etc., they would have prevailed on a civil rights or post conviction petition. In reality, this standard has proved all but insurmountable as this case shows.

Related legal case

White v. Kautzky


 

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