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Seventh Circuit Reinstates Lawsuit Over Illinois Jail’s Denial of Legal Publication Without Notice

by Matt Clarke 

On February 8, 2019, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a district court erred when it reframed a former Illinois jail prisoner’s lawsuit over denial of a legal publication as a broad First Amendment challenge to the facility’s policy of prohibiting prisoners from receiving newspapers. 

Joseph Miller was a federal prisoner being held at the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee, Illinois in 2012 and 2013. Because there was no law library at the jail and no access to federal case law, Miller’s family purchased a subscription to the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin (CDLB) to help him understand and assist with his case. 

The jail decided that CDLB was a newspaper, which was prohibited by policy, and confiscated each issue without notifying Miller. Miller filed a pro se federal civil rights lawsuit, claiming the jail’s disposal of CDLB, especially without notice, violated the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. 

The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, reframing Miller’s claim as a broad First Amendment challenge to the jail’s prohibition against newspapers, which it justified as necessary to control the amount of paper in cells for security reasons because prisoners had used newspapers to conceal contraband and clog toilets. The court accepted the reframing and argument that allowing newspapers would strain staff resources for sorting mail, and granted the summary judgment motion. 

Represented by counsel, Miller appealed. 

The Seventh Circuit noted that the jail’s mail policy did not prohibit the receipt of newspapers, but prisoners were barred from possessing them. The CDLB has apparently deemed a “newspaper” because it was printed on newsprint, yet the jail allowed prisoners to receive Prison Legal News, which also uses newsprint. PLN had previously filed a censorship suit against the jail that resulted in a $112,000 settlement and policy changes in 2015. See: Prison Legal News v. County of Kankakee, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Ill.), Case No. 2:14-cv-02290-CSB-EIL.

The Court of Appeals held the district court had erred in converting Miller’s narrow challenge to the prohibition against his receiving a legal publication, CDLB, into a general challenge to the jail’s prohibition against receiving newspapers. The Court noted that Miller’s pro se complaint “was remarkable for its clarity and precision,” alleging jail personnel violated his civil rights by confiscating a legal publication (not a newspaper) that he needed because, unlike what the district court found, the jail had no law library or research materials concerning federal case law. He also clearly raised a due process issue – lack of notice of the confiscation – which the district court failed to address. 

The Seventh Circuit found the jail had revised its publication policy soon after the lawsuit was filed, permitting some newspapers, and transferred Miller just days after he submitted his complaint, rendering his request for injunctive relief moot. Thus, the district court should have ruled on the narrow issue of whether confiscating Miller’s legal publication without notice violated his civil rights.

The judgment of the district court was vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings. Following remand, counsel was appointed to represent Miller. See: Miller v. Downey, 915 F.3d 460 (7th Cir. 2019). 

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Related legal case

Miller v. Downey