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Alaska Filing Fee Statute Denies Prisoners Court Access

Alaska Filing Fee Statute Denies Prisoners Court Access

by Mark Wilson

In December 6, 2013, the Alaska Supreme Court held that barring an indigent prisoner from filing an appeal due to inability to pay the filing fee deprived him of his fundamental right of access to the courts.

In May 2011, Alaska prisoner James Barber was found in violation of prison rules and placed in segregation. He appealed the violation to the superior court, requesting a partial filing fee exemption under AS 09.19.010 due to his indigency. The superior court granted a partial exemption and reduced the filing fee to $33.86, to be paid within 30 days.

AS 09.19.010 specifies that prisoners “must pay a full court filing fee before commencing litigation against the State. But the statute allows a court to exempt part of the filing fee if the prisoner demonstrates exceptional circumstances.”

In September 2011, Barber was found guilty of a second disciplinary violation and again put in segregation. He also attempted to challenge that order in superior court, seeking a partial filing fee exemption due to his inability to pay. The superior court again set the filing fee at $33.86, due within 30 days.

When Barber failed to pay, the superior court dismissed both actions. He then appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, arguing that the prisoner litigation filing fee statute deprived him of access to the courts. The Supreme Court asked the Alaska Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to appear as amicus curiae in support of Barber’s position.

The Court observed that it had “recited the proposition that ‘an inmate’s right of unfettered access to the courts is as fundamental a right as any other he may hold. All other rights ... are illusory without it,’” citing Mathis v. Sauser, 942 P.2d 1117 (Alaska 1997) (quoting Adams v. Carlson, 488 F.2d 619 (7th Cir. 1973)).

Analyzing Barber’s court access claim as an issue of procedural due process, the Supreme Court applied the balancing test of Matthews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976) and concluded, following an extensive analysis, that “as applied to prisoners in Barber’s circumstances, AS 09.19.010 denies adequate procedural due process.”

“Although the state may have a legitimate interest in reducing frivolous prisoner litigation,” the Court wrote, “due process cannot allow that interest to be furthered by barring an individual prisoner’s court access because of an actual inability to pay.” The dismissals of Barber’s appeals were reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Barber v. Alaska DOC, 314 P.3d 58 (Alaska 2013).


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Related legal cases

Barber v. Alaska DOC

Mathis v. Sauser