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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. I just wanted to point out that Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, Senator Feinstein, former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, and former attorney general John Ashcroft are responsible for this rubbish. We need to keep a eye on these corrupt, arrogant, and incompetent fools.

  2. Well I guess our politicians have decided to give these idiot federal prosecutors unlimited power. Now if I guy bounces a fifty-dollar check, the U.S. attorney can intentionally wait for twenty-five years or so and have the check swabbed for DNA and file charges. These power hungry federal prosecutors now have unlimited power to mess with people. we can thank Wisconsin's Jim Sensenbrenner and Diane Feinstein, John Achcroft and Bill Frist for this one. Way to go, idiots.

  3. I wonder if the USSR had electronic voting machines that changed the ballot after it was cast? Oh well, at least we have a free media serving as vicious watchdog and exposing all of the rot in the system! (Insert rimshot)

  4. Jose, you are assuming those in power do not wish to be totalitarian. My experience has convinced me otherwise. Constitutionalists are nearly as rare as hens teeth among the powerbrokers "managing" us for The Glorious State. Oh, and your point is dead on, el correcta mundo. Keep the Founders’ (1791 & 1851) vision alive, my friend, even if most all others, and especially the ruling junta, chase only power and money (i.e. mammon)

  5. Hypocrisy in high places, absolute immunity handed out like Halloween treats (it is the stuff of which tyranny is made) and the belief that government agents are above the constitutions and cannot be held responsible for mere citizen is killing, perhaps has killed, The Republic. And yet those same power drunk statists just reel on down the hallway toward bureaucratic fascism.

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