A four-year-old state statute aimed at limiting frivolous lawsuits filed by prison inmates is unconstitutional because it effectively closes the courthouse doors altogether for certain people, a split Indiana Supreme Court ruled today.
Three of the five justices – Justices Theodore Boehm, Robert Rucker, and Brent Dickson – agreed that the state’s 2004 “Three Strikes Law” violates the Indiana Constitution’s Open Courts Clause. Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard and Justice Frank Sullivan disagreed and observed their colleagues’ decision means many Hoosier litigants will have to wait longer for their day in court because of filings from “the very most abusive frequent filers in the state’s prisons.”
The 3-2 decision comes in Eric D. Smith v. Indiana Department of Correction, et al., No. 49S02-0804-CV-166, but it also brings with it unanimous decisions in three other suits from another inmate based on the majority’s rationale in Smith. Those cases are James H. Higgason v. Indiana DOC, Nos. 46S04-0804-CV-167, 46S03-0804-CV-168, and 46S05-0804-CV-169. All four cases were granted transfer with the opinions today.
Smith entered the state’s prison system after being convicted of arson in 2001. Specifically, he was found guilty of starting a fire in an apartment complex on the west side of Indianapolis that left 12 families homeless and resulted in $2 million in damages. He was sentenced to 20 years and is incarcerated at the Westville Correctional Facility.
He’s filed dozens of suits since then, including the current one that involved his prison cell creation of a makeshift hammock – made from his bed sheet and water pipe – and refusal to come down until correctional officers provided him with copies of a brief he planned to file in litigation before the Indiana Court of Appeals. They used chemical spray and pepper balls to force him down, and he later filed an injury claim that the Marion Superior Court dismissed as frivolous under the state law.
Meanwhile, Higgason is also a state prison inmate incarcerated following a burglary conviction in 1985 that led to 25 years imprisonment because of his habitual offender status. Higgason brought the three claims addressed by the court today over photocopying fees for legal documents in several cases, all of which had been dismissed as frivolous.
At issue is Indiana Code 34-58-2-1, which says inmates are not allowed to file new litigation if they have at least three ongoing civil actions that a state court has dismissed. The only permissible reason would be if a court determines that inmate is in “immediate danger of serious bodily injury.”
In theory, legitimate lawsuits move forward. Frivolous cases are dismissed.
The court didn’t address the other 2004-adopted law IC 34-58-1-2, known as the Frivolous Claim Law, which Smith and Higgason didn’t challenge as it provides that a court shall review complaints and petitions filed by offenders to determine if a claim should proceed.
In writing for the majority, Justice Boehm noted that Indiana’s Three Strikes Law goes further than other jurisdictions attempting to limit frivolous claims from inmates.
“The Indiana Constitution does not balance the inconvenience of entertaining a claim against the right to seek redress from the courts subject to reasonable conditions,” Justice Boehm wrote. “To the contrary, the right to petition the courts is absolute. This does not mean that meritless claims may not be summarily dismissed under the Frivolous Claim Law. It does mean that an individualized assessment of each claim is required, and a claim cannot be dismissed on the basis of who presents it rather than whether it has merit.”
Justices relied on everything from state and federal caselaw in other jurisdictions, those state constitutions, the Indiana Constitution of 1816, and the English Magna Carta charter of 1215.
“Indiana is unique in imposing a complete ban on filing based on the plaintiff’s prior litigation,” Justice Boehm wrote. “The (law) sweeps with a broader brush than the law of any other United States jurisdiction because it operates as an indiscriminate statutory ban, not merely a condition to access to the courts. The law bars claims purely on the basis of the plaintiff’s prior activity without regard to the merits of the claims presented.”
But Chief Justice Shepard disagreed in a dissent that the majority describes as unfounded, contending that the decision will clog the courts to the exclusion of legitimate litigants.
Describing Smith as an “excellent poster boy” to highlight the Three Strikes Law and his amount of serial lawsuits as “impressive,” the chief justice wrote the majority is taking an extraordinary step that is “quite paradoxal.”
“The majority rates the cause of assuring Smith a hearing on the merits of every lawsuit he chooses to file as so important to the life of our state that it takes the extraordinary step of invalidating the General Assembly’s effort to assure access to justice for all of Indiana’s citizens,” he wrote. “The decision to do so is not compelled by the organic documents of Western justice. One can revere the Magna Carta and still say with confidence that those who created it would be appalled that so many citizens should be pushed aside to make room for prison inmates pursuing their fifteenth or one hundred fifteenth lawsuit.”
Justice Sullivan wrote in his dissent that the majority goes much further than necessary to protect a Hoosier’s cherished right of access to courts, saying the legislature created a reasonable balance between that right and prison inmate litigation.
Both Chief Justice Shepard and Justice Sullivan concurred in result with the Higgason rulings, with Justice Sullivan noting that he believed the Three Strikes Law was constitutional as applied to Higgason but that the claim could be dismissed under the Frivolous Claim Law.
All four cases are reversed and remanded. In Smith, the justices ordered the trial judge to determine whether the claim should be dismissed under the Frivolous Claim Law. Higgason’s three claims are to be dismissed under that statute, the court ordered.