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Cornett v. Donovan

filed: April 7, 1995.

SUSAN CORNETT; KATHERINE JENSEN; JOHN HENRY; TIMOTHY HISER, ON THEIR OWN BEHALF AND ON BEHALF OF ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
RICHARD DONOVAN, DIRECTOR, IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND WELFARE; STEPHEN C. WEEG, ADMINISTRATOR, STATE HOSPITAL SOUTH, IN THEIR OFFICIAL AND INDIVIDUAL CAPACITIES. DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Idaho. D.C. No. CV-91-231-EJL. Edward J. Lodge, District Judge, Presiding.

Before: Thomas Tang, Jerome Farris, and Pamela Ann Rymer, Circuit Judges. Opinion by Judge Tang.

Author: Tang

TANG, Senior Circuit Judge:

This is a review of a declaratory judgment in which the district court concluded that the constitutional right of access to the courts requires a state to provide legal assistance only through the pleading stage of a habeas corpus or civil rights action. The issue on appeal is whether the constitutional right of access to the courts requires a state to provide legal assistance beyond the pleading stage. We conclude that it does not.

The Supreme Court cases discussing the constitutional right of access indicate that a state need only provide assistance through the pleading stage. The right of access is designed to ensure that a habeas corpus petition or a civil rights complaint of a person in state custody will reach a court for consideration. Thereafter, the court has the discretion to appoint counsel for indigent persons when the circumstances so warrant. We affirm the judgment of the district court on the scope of the right of access.

The plaintiffs in this case, Susan Cornett, Katherine Jensen, John Henry and Timothy Hiser, are either present or former patients at Idaho State Hospital South, ("SHS") a public institution for the mentally ill owned and operated by the State of Idaho. The plaintiffs filed a complaint alleging that SHS was violating their constitutional right of access to the courts because SHS provided neither a law library nor legal assistance to handle various matters on which the plaintiffs wanted assistance, including appeals of commitment orders, a request for a protective order, and research on rehabilitation and treatment. The plaintiffs requested declaratory and injunctive relief, and plaintiff Hiser requested damages. The plaintiffs also moved to certify a class consisting of all present and future indigent SHS patients. However, the district court never ruled on the motion.

The parties entered into a partial stipulated settlement, filed on January 27, 1992. In the settlement, SHS agreed to contract with the Bingham county public defender to provide the following services:

1. Advice and counsel in regard to habeas corpus proceedings, re-examination of commitment proceedings, and civil rights;

2. Legal representation through the hearing stage of a habeas corpus or re-examination proceeding where [the public defender's office] has determined such a proceeding is meritorious.

The settlement added that SHS would not provide payment to the public defender in civil rights actions beyond preparation of an initial pleading.*fn1

The settlement stated that all of plaintiffs' claims were abandoned except for the legal issue of "the scope of the constitutional right of access as identified in Plaintiffs' Reply to Defendants' Amended Motion for Summary Judgment . . . and Defendants' Reply Memorandum in Support of Amended Motion for Summary Judgment . . . ." Each of these documents states the legal issue somewhat differently.

In an order filed on February 4, 1992, the district court determined the issue to be whether the constitutional right of access to the courts required SHS to provide legal assistance beyond the pleading stage of a habeas corpus or civil rights action. The court concluded that the duty to provide assistance ceased upon the filing of a habeas petition or civil rights complaint or upon the filing of a reply to a responsive pleading when such a reply is ordered by the court.

I. The Issue on Appeal

The parties disagree about the precise issue on appeal. As stated above, the stipulated settlement refers to the issue as set forth in "Plaintiffs' Reply to Defendants' Amended Motion for Summary Judgment . . . and Defendants' Reply Memorandum in Support of Amended Motion for Summary Judgment . . . ." Each of these documents, however, describes the legal issue somewhat differently. Plaintiffs' Reply states the issue is "whether the constitutional right of access to the courts extends beyond the pleading stage." On appeal, plaintiffs state the issue is the scope of the right of access in both habeas and civil rights actions. Defendants' Reply phrases the ...


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