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Justices split on appellate review of prisoner litigant's claim

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One of Indiana's most well-known pro se prisoner litigants convinced two of the state justices that his latest appeal should get their attention, but the other three denied transfer relating to how the Indiana Court of Appeals dismissed the case.

In an order Monday denying transfer in Eric D. Smith v. Steve Euler, et al., No. 46A03-1011-CT-592, the Supreme Court examined how the state’s intermediate appellate court had handled an appeal of the New Castle inmate earlier in the year.

Convicted of arson in 2001, Eric D. Smith is serving a 20-year sentence and has filed dozens of suits through the years. One of those, Eric D. Smith v. Indiana Department of Correction, et al., No. 49S02-0804-CV-166, resulted in the Indiana Supreme Court’s holding in April 2008 that the state’s “Three Strikes Rule” against prisoner litigation was unconstitutional because it effectively closed the door on some prisoners and their ability to file legitimate claims.

The online appellate docket shows Smith has filed 99 appeals since 2002, with less than a dozen of those being criminal or post-conviction relief cases.

The instant case is against two correctional officers and the prison counselor. Smith’s suit involves a LaPorte Superior Court judgment dismissing his suit on grounds that it had already been adjudicated, and the case made its way to the Court of Appeals in late 2010. The appellate court in January ordered that Smith show cause within 35 days as to why the appeal shouldn’t be dismissed on res judicata, and in late February the court found Smith hadn’t done that and dismissed the case with prejudice. Smith filed a transfer petition in March.

While three justices voted to deny transfer, Justices Frank Sullivan and Brent Dickson dissented and issued a separate opinion explaining their rationale. Specifically they took issue with how the appellate panel issued the order to show cause rather than address the res judicata questions as is typically done. These orders are typically used when a question exists about the court’s jurisdiction, or when a litigant hasn’t complied with the Rules of Appellate Procedure, Justice Sullivan wrote.

Noting that he’d written the high court’s decision three years ago that emphasized even frequent inmate lawsuit filers have a constitutional right to appeal, Justice Sullivan wrote that he believes the appellate court’s action was improper.

“In my view, this is no different than a trial court dismissing a tort claim on, say, statute-of-limitation grounds,” he wrote. “The plaintiff in such a situation would be entitled to appellate review of that dismissal; the court on appeal would not first issue an order to show cause as to why the appeal should not be dismissed on grounds of statute of limitations.”

Justice Dickson joined his colleague on the dissent, which ended: “I would grant transfer and remand this case to the Court of Appeals for consideration of Mr. Smith’s appeal on the merits unless, of course, Mr. Smith is guilty of abusing the appellate process to an extent warranting dismissal.”

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  1. Your article is a good intro the recent amendments to Fed.R.Civ.P. For a much longer - though not necessarily better -- summary, counsel might want to read THE CHIEF UMPIRE IS CHANGING THE STRIKE ZONE, which I co-authored and which was just published in the January issue of THE VERDICT (the monthly publication of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association).

  2. Thank you, John Smith, for pointing out a needed correction. The article has been revised.

  3. The "National institute for Justice" is an agency for the Dept of Justice. That is not the law firm you are talking about in this article. The "institute for justice" is a public interest law firm. http://ij.org/ thanks for interesting article however

  4. I would like to try to find a lawyer as soon possible I've had my money stolen off of my bank card driver pressed charges and I try to get the information they need it and a Social Security board is just give me a hold up a run around for no reason and now it think it might be too late cuz its been over a year I believe and I can't get the right information they need because they keep giving me the runaroundwhat should I do about that

  5. It is wonderful that Indiana DOC is making some truly admirable and positive changes. People with serious mental illness, intellectual disability or developmental disability will benefit from these changes. It will be much better if people can get some help and resources that promote their health and growth than if they suffer alone. If people experience positive growth or healing of their health issues, they may be less likely to do the things that caused them to come to prison in the first place. This will be of benefit for everyone. I am also so happy that Indiana DOC added correctional personnel and mental health staffing. These are tough issues to work with. There should be adequate staffing in prisons so correctional officers and other staff are able to do the kind of work they really want to do-helping people grow and change-rather than just trying to manage chaos. Correctional officers and other staff deserve this. It would be great to see increased mental health services and services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the community so that fewer people will have to receive help and support in prisons. Community services would like be less expensive, inherently less demeaning and just a whole lot better for everyone.

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