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Delaware: Prisoners Have No Right of Access to Certain DOC Policies; Court Rules Statute Denying Access Constitutional

On May 25, 2016, the Court of Chancery of the State of Delaware upheld the constitutionality of a state statute which prohibits the Department of Correction (DOC) from providing certain DOC policies to prisoners or the public. The ruling dismissed an action filed pro se by one current and one former prisoner at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center (JVCC).

The prisoners -- Salih Hall and Kevin Howard -- were seeking access to internal DOC policies and procedures including, according to the court, those relating to chain of command, staffing protocols, security training procedures, and institutional schematics. The prisoners challenged the constitutionality of a Delaware statute (11 Del. C. Sect. 4322(c) and (d)) which precludes dissemination of certain internal DOC policies without the written authority of the DOC Commissioner.

The plaintiffs sought a declaration that the statute was unconstitutional on two grounds: (1) the statute violated the "non-delegation doctrine" of the Delaware Constitution by making the exercise of DOC's authority unaccountable, and (2) the provision violated the state constitution's "single-subject rule" because the bill that created them "embraced more than one subject."

The state moved to dismiss the case, however, based on lack of standing, i.e., that the plaintiffs have not alleged an injury sufficient to invoke the court's jurisdiction. The Court of Chancery agreed that the prisoners suffered no injury and thus lacked standing, and dismissed the case.

"Standing is a threshold jurisdictional requirement," the court wrote. Before reaching the merits of the prisoners' lawsuit, the court held that it first must be satisfied that there were sufficient facts "from which it could reasonably be inferred that they have standing to bring their claims."

The court noted that neither plaintiff alleged that he was actually denied access to any DOC policy, and that their sole allegation was that DOC had the unfettered authority to deny them access. That is not enough to establish standing, the court found.

"It is difficult to discern how a statute that prevents the DOC from providing inmates access to policies that offer them no substantive rights ... could possibly form the basis of a legally cognizable injury," the court wrote in deciding that the prisoners "failed to satisfy their burden of establishing standing."

Although not relevant to their final ruling, the court went on to say that even if they did have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the statute, the plaintiffs' claims would still fail. The court dismissed the "non-delgation" and "single-subject" claims, stating that there was nothing to support an inference that the statute improperly delegated authority to the DOC that it should not possess, and that the subject of the bill that created the statute was "sufficiently informative so as to put on notice parties interested in the general subject matter in such manner as would lead them to inquire into it."

The Court of Chancery granted the motion to dismiss the case and denied a request by the plaintiffs to amend their complaint, calling it "futile." See: Hall, et al., v. Coupe, et al., C.A. No. 10307-VCS (May 25, 2016).

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Related legal case

Hall, et al., v. Coupe, et al.