Prisoners Rights LegalCorrespondence
Case: Shaw v. Murphy
Issue: Whether inmate-to-inmate correspondence thatincludes legal assistance is entitled to greater protection underthe First Amendment than inmate-to-inmate correspondence that doesnot contain legal assistance.
Facts: Respondent Kevin Murphy was incarcerated inMontana State Prison where he served as an inmate law clerk byproviding legal assistance to fellow inmates. Upon learning thatfellow inmate Tracy had been charged with assaulting CorrectionalOfficer Glen Galle, Murphy decided to assist Tracy with hisdefense. The prison refused Murphys assignment to the case,however, because prison rules prohibited high-security inmates suchas Murphy from meeting with maximum-security inmates such as Tracy.Although prison officials provided Tracy with another legal clerk,Murphy nonetheless investigated the alleged assault. Following hisinvestigation, Murphy wrote Tracy a letter offering legal adviceand leveling charges of wrongdoing against Officer Galle that mighthave been significant to Tracys defense. In accordance withprison policy, prison officials intercepted and reviewed theletter. Based upon the accusations Murphy had made against OfficerGalle, Murphy was cited for insolence, interference with dueprocess hearings, and conduct that interferes with the security andorderly operation of the institution. After a hearing, Murphy wasfound guilty of the first two prohibitions and was sanctioned witha suspended sentence and demerits that potentially affected hiscustody level.
Murphy filed an action in United States District Court, seekingdeclaratory and injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Thecomplaint alleged that the prisons disciplinary hearingviolated due process, inmates rights to access to courts, andMurphys own First Amendment rights, including the right toprovide legal assistance to other inmates. The District Courtgranted summary judgment for the State. On the First Amendmentclaim, the District Court found that, under the test established inTurner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), [[W]hen a prisonregulation impinges on inmates constitutional rights, theregulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimatepenological interests] the prison regulations regarding inmatecorrespondence were reasonably related to the objectives of prisonorder and safety and prisoner rehabilitation, and were thereforconstitutional. The United States Court of Appeals for the NinthCircuit reversed. It premised its analysis on the proposition thatinmates have a First Amendment right to assist other inmateswith their legal claims. The Ninth Circuit applied theCourts Turner decision, but it did so only againstthe backdrop of this First Amendment right. It held thatMurphys First Amendment right to assist Tracy with thelatters legal claims affected the balance of theprisoners interests against the governments interests.The Ninth Circuit concluded that the balance tipped in favor ofMurphy and thus upheld his First Amendment claim.
Holding: Prisoners possess no First Amendment right toprovide legal advice that enhances the protection otherwiseavailable under Turner.
Reasoning: The Court, in a unanimous opinion by JusticeThomas, held that inmate-to-inmate correspondence that includedlegal assistance received no greater First Amendment protectionthan correspondence without any legal assistance. The Courtstressed that it was not being asked to decide whether prisonershave any First Amendment rights when they send legalcorrespondence to one another. In fact, Turner itself waspremised in part on the notion that prisoners have limited FirstAmendment rights. Prisoners clearly retain certain constitutionalrights while incarcerated, although those rights are often limitedin scope due to the penological needs of the prison system.
Reflecting the realization that courts are particularlyill equipped to deal with [the problems of prisons inAmerica], the Court in Turner had adopted a deferentialstandard for review of a prisoners constitutional claims:[W]hen a prison regulation impinges on inmatesconstitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonablyrelated to legitimate penological interests. Under this standard,four factors are relevant. First and foremost, there must bea valid, rational connection between the prison regulation and thelegitimate and neutral interest put forward to justify it.The three other factors that a court must consider are, theexistence of alternative means of exercising the right available tothe inmates; the impact [that] accommodation of the assertedconstitutional right will have on guards and other inmates, and onthe allocation of prison resources generally; and, the absence ofready alternatives available to the prison for achieving thegovernmental objectives.
Since Turner provides the test for evaluatingprisoners First Amendment challenges, the issue before us iswhether Turner permits an increase in constitutionalprotection whenever a prisoners communication includes legaladvice. We conclude that it does not. To permit increasedconstitutional protection based upon the content of a particularkind of communication requires an assessment of that contentsvalue. But the Turner test, by its terms, simply does notaccommodate valuations of content. Under Turner, prisonofficials remain the primary arbiters of problems in prison. Ifcourts were to start enhancing constitutional protection based onthe contents of particular communications, courts would be assuminga much greater role in decisions affecting prison administration.Seeking to avoid unnecessarily perpetuating the involvementof federal courts in affairs of prison administration, theCourt rejected the Ninth Circuits alteration of theTurner analysis. Finally, even if it were to providecontent-based special protection to certain kinds of speech, theCourt held that it would not do so for inmate-to-inmatecorrespondence that contains legal advice, reasoning that anincrease of First Amendment protection for inmate legal advicewould undermine prison officials ability to address thecomplex and intractable problems of prisonadministration.
Other Opinions: In a concurring opinion, Justice Ginsburgmade two observations. First, Murphy did not challenge theprisons right to intercept and review prisoner-to-prisonercorrespondence. Second, Murphys § 1983 challenge to theprison rules under which he was disciplined, as being vague andoverbroad, was not addressed by the Ninth Circuit. The Courtsremand to the Ninth Circuit, therefore, should not impede Murphyfrom reasserting that claim.
Comment: The question of whether the particular prisonregulations in question, as applied to Murphy, were reasonablyrelated to legitimate penological concerns under the Turnertest was not addressed by the Court. That matter was left to thelower courts upon remand.