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Showing posts with label civil death. Show all posts
Showing posts with label civil death. Show all posts

Saturday, July 16, 2022

'Civil death,' denial of tort claims, violates prisoners' right of access to courts, R.I. high court holds

N.C. State Archives public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons
The Rhode Island Supreme Court in March struck down the state "civil death" statute, which disallowed civil claims by inmates imprisoned for life.

The statute at issue states:

Every person imprisoned in the adult correctional institutions for life shall, with respect to all rights of property, to the bond of matrimony and to all civil rights and relations of any nature whatsoever, be deemed to be dead in all respects, as if his or her natural death had taken place at the time of conviction. However, the bond of matrimony shall not be dissolved, nor shall the rights to property or other rights of the husband or wife of the imprisoned person be terminated or impaired, except on the entry of a lawfully obtained decree for divorce.

Alleging negligent maintenance, one plaintiff-inmate complained "that his arm was severely burned and permanently disfigured when he made contact with an exposed hot water pipe at the [prison]." Another alleged negligence when he slipped and fell after being compelled "to walk across an icy walkway at the [prison]." The trial court rejected both claims as barred by the "civil death" statute.

I was shocked to read of this case in my home state's Providence Journal; I never had heard of a "civil death" statute. The R.I. ACLU provided some background:

Rhode Island was apparently the only state in the country still enforcing a law like this, whose origins date back to ancient English common law. As far back as 1976, a court struck down Missouri's civil death statute, noting that "the concept of civil death has been condemned by virtually every court and commentator to study it over the last thirty years." The court observed that such laws had been characterized even before then as "archaic," "outmoded," "an outdated and inscrutable common law precept," and "a medieval fiction in a modern world." In 1937, when 18 states still had civil death laws, a law review article called the concept "outworn."

Applying the 1843 state constitution (article 1, section 5), a four-justice majority of the Rhode Island Supreme Court had little trouble reaching the conclusion that I thought was obvious, that the law violates the fundamental due process right of access to the courts.

Justice Lynch Prata
(via Ballotpedia)
Employing strict scrutiny, the court acknowledged that "civil death"

functions as an additional sanction imposed upon some of the state's worst criminals and furthers the goals of punishment and deterrence. This Court has recognized that "[t]he loss of civil status as a form of punishment is a principle that dates back to ancient societies." .... However, it is our opinion that this particular additional punishment is not a compelling reason to override the right of access to the courts that is textually guaranteed by the Rhode Island Constitution.

Justice Goldberg
(via Ballotpedia)
Even were the statute supported by a compelling state interest, it is not narrowly drawn, the court further opined, as it fails to distinguish between prisoners based on their eligibility for parole.

Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg dissented. "Prison inmates, especially life prisoners, are not entitled to the same degree of constitutional rights as are members of society at large," she wrote, "and that includes the right to bring tort claims against the warden for a slip and fall or a burned hand." She would have narrowed the question to the plaintiffs' negligence claims and upheld the statute.

"In my more than two decades of service on this Court, I cannot recall ever having declared a statute to be unconstitutional," Justice Goldberg opined. "[T]his should not be the first case with such a drastic result in light of our longstanding jurisprudence."

The case is Zab v. R.I. Department of Corrections, No. 2019-459-Appeal (R.I. Mar. 2, 2022). Justice Erin Lynch Prata wrote the majority opinion.

A former state senator Judge Prata was nominated to the court by Governor Gina Raimondo in December 2020, just three months before she left office to become the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. Justice Lynch Prata is 2000 graduate of Catholic Law, for which I periodically teach as a visitor. Judge Goldberg is the senior-most justice on the court, having served since her appointment in 1997.