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Monday, April 21, 2008

Ind. Decisions - More on: Supreme Court holds Three Strikes Law unconstitutional

Writing about the Supreme Court decisions April 8th on the "three-strike" law (see ILB entry here), the Indianapolis Star's Jon Murray has a lengthy and comprehensive report today on the ramifications. Some quotes:

Locked away for setting an apartment fire, Eric D. Smith filed dozens of lawsuits against the prison system. He penned threats to the judge who sent him there. And he declared civil war against Indiana.

Now he's a precedent-setter.

One of his lawsuits spurred the Indiana Supreme Court this month to overturn a four-year-old law barring inmates from suing if courts had deemed three previous suits frivolous.

The dissenting justices in the 3-2 decision predicted a new influx of lawsuits would slow the gears of the court system for other Hoosiers.

As the attorney general's office looks for ways to salvage the law by loosening the restriction, it is bracing for more serial-filers like Smith, 29, now at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.

One state attorney said Smith had filed 67 suits or claims since he was sentenced less than seven years ago by a Marion County judge.

In its April 9 decision, the Supreme Court ruled the law's absolute restriction against repeat-filers violated the open courts clause of the Indiana Constitution.

"This does not mean that meritless claims may not be summarily dismissed under the Frivolous Claims Law," said the opinion, written by Justice Theodore R. Boehm. "It does mean that an individualized assessment of each claim is required." * * *

The Supreme Court has sent the case back to Marion Superior Court to address whether it is frivolous.

When state legislators passed the so-called "three strikes" law, they sought to deter the flow of litigation from prisons full of amateur lawyers with plenty of time on their hands.

Since then, the number of inmate suits against the Indiana Department of Correction has decreased by nearly half, Erdmann said. Last year, state lawyers handled 148 lawsuits filed by inmates, not including some ruled frivolous.

The three-strikes law provided an exemption for prisoners in immediate danger of serious bodily injury.

Not enough, the Supreme Court said; that could still block an inmate who suffered a property theft or other wrong.

Advocates for prisoners' rights say laws that crack down on frivolous filers must be crafted so legitimate claims also aren't axed. * * *

Other states and federal law require inmates who file too many lawsuits to pay full court fees or ask a court's permission to file another claim. Indiana was the only state to cut off access to the courts, the Indiana opinion says.

The decision dismisses the concerns of dissenting Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard and Justice Frank Sullivan Jr. by noting a court's review of a suit for frivolity takes a little more time.

The same day the court issued the Smith decision, it reversed Court of Appeals rulings barring three suits by another inmate, James Higgason Jr., because of the three-strikes law.

But in those decisions, the Supreme Court threw out Higgason's claims -- all dealing with copying fees charged for legal documents -- because they are outside the courts' jurisdiction.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on April 21, 2008 06:39 PM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions