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Fifth Circuit Reverses District Court's Denial of Appointment of Counsel

On March 6, 2009, Fifth Circuit reversed the district court's denial of appointment of counsel and upheld the dismissal of free exercise, equal protection and retaliation claims. Texas prisoner Willie Lee Garner filed a pro se lawsuit pursuant to 42 USC § 1983 in federal court alleging his constitutional rights were violated by Texas Department of Criminal Justice's (TDCJ) policies for grooming and religious practice.

Garner, a practicing Muslim, sought financial judgment against employees of TDCJ in their official capacities for refusing to allow him to maintain a quarter-inch beard and wear a kufi to and from religious service. He alleged this violated his First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion, his Fourth Amendment to equal protection under the law, and retaliation under the Eight Amendment. In addition, he claimed that the TDCJ's policies violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which protects the religious practices of institutionalized person.

The Fifth Circuit upheld the district court's ruling that sovereign immunity barred Garner from suing TDCJ employees in their official capacities for monetary damages. Citing Muhammad v. Lynaugh, 966 F.2d 901 (5th Cir. 1992), the Fifth Circuit also affirmed the dismissal of Garner's First Amendment rights of free exercise claims that forbade him from wearing a quarter-inch beard and a kufi to and from religious service on the grounds that the TDCJ's grooming policy was reasonably related to the legitimate penological interests of prison security.

Addressing the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment on TDCJ'S grooming and head covering policies that forbade Muslims from wearing a quarter-inch beard in accordance with their religion while allowing other adherents of other religions to wear medallions, crosses, amulets, and medical bags and performing ceremonial rites of smoking tobacco and participating in sweat lodges. The Fifth Circuit upheld the district court's ruling that Garner failed to establish that TDCJ purposely enacted the grooming or head-covering policy to adversely impact Muslim inmates from practicing their faith. Because Garner failed to raise a fact issue of equal protection, he cannot establish the TDCJ's policies violated his Constitutional rights under the Eight Amendment retaliation claim.

Unless there are "exceptional circumstances," the appointment of counsel is not a guaranteed right in a civil case. Because complexities exist in the instant lawsuit and the legal novelty of this case, the Fifth Circuit vacated the district court's summary judgment on Garner's RLUIPA claims. And on remand, the RLUIPA claims are limited to declaratory and injunctive relief. See: Garner v. Morales, Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Case No. 07-41015; 2009 WL 577755.

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Related legal case

Garner v. Morales