Lewis v. Casey,
518 U.S. 343 (1996)

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No.94-1511. Argued November 29, 1995-Decided June 24, 1996

Respondents, who are inmates of various prisons operated by the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADOC), brought a class action against petitioners, ADOC officials, alleging that petitioners were furnishing them with inadequate legal research facilities and thereby depriving them of their right of access to the courts, in violation of Bounds v. Smith, 430 U. S. 817. The District Court found petitioners to be in violation of Bounds and issued an injunction mandating detailed, systemwide changes in ADOC's prison law libraries and in its legal assistance programs. The Ninth Circuit affirmed both the finding of a Bounds violation and the injunction's major terms.

Held: The success of respondents' systemic challenge was dependent on their ability to show widespread actual injury, and the District Court's failure to identify anything more than isolated instances of actual injury renders its finding of a systemic Bounds violation invalid. Pp. 348-364.

(a) Bounds did not create an abstract, freestanding right to a law library or legal assistance; rather, the right that Bounds acknowledged was the right of access to the courts. E. g., 430 U. S., at 817, 821, 828. Thus, to establish a Bounds violation, the "actual injury" that an inmate must demonstrate is that the alleged shortcomings in the prison library or legal assistance program have hindered, or are presently hindering, his efforts to pursue a nonfrivolous legal claim. This requirement derives ultimately from the doctrine of standing. Although Bounds made no mention of an actual injury requirement, it can hardly be thought to have eliminated that constitutional prerequisite. Pp.349-353.

(b) Statements in Bounds suggesting that prison authorities must also enable the prisoner to discover grievances, and to litigate effectively once in court, 430 U. S., at 825-826, and n. 14, have no antecedent in this Court's pre-Bounds cases, and are now disclaimed. Moreover, Bounds does not guarantee inmates the wherewithal to file any and every type of legal claim, but requires only that they be provided with the tools to attack their sentences, directly or collaterally, and to challenge the conditions of their confinement. Pp. 354-355.



(c) The District Court identified only two instances of actual injury:

It found that ADOC's failures with respect to illiterate prisoners had resulted in the dismissal with prejudice of inmate Bartholic's lawsuit and the inability of inmate Harris to file a legal action. Pp. 356-357.

(d) These findings as to injury do not support the systemwide injunction ordered by the District Court. The remedy must be limited to the inadequacy that produced the injury in fact that the plaintiff has established; that this is a class action changes nothing, for even named plaintiffs in a class action must show that they personally have been injured, see, e. g., Simon v. Eastern Ky. Welfare Rights Organization, 426 U. S. 26, 40, n. 20. Only one named plaintiff, Bartholic, was found to have suffered actual injury-as a result of ADOC's failure to provide the special services he would have needed, in light of his particular disability (illiteracy), to avoid dismissal of his case. Eliminated from the proper scope of the injunction, therefore, are provisions directed at special services or facilities required by non-English speakers, by prisoners in lockdown, and by the inmate population at large. Furthermore, the inadequacy that caused actual injury to illiterate inmates Bartholic and Harris was not sufficiently widespread to justify systemwide relief. There is no finding, and no evidence discernible from the record, that in ADOC prisons other than those occupied by Bartholic and Harris illiterate inmates cannot obtain the minimal help necessary to file legal claims. Pp. 357-360.

(e) There are further reasons why the order here cannot stand. In concluding that ADOC's restrictions on lockdown inmates were unjustified, the District Court failed to accord the judgment of prison authorities the substantial deference required by cases such as Turner v. Safley, 482 U. S. 78, 89. The court also failed to leave with prison officials the primary responsibility for devising a remedy. Compare Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U. S. 475, 492. The result of this improper procedure was an inordinately intrusive order. Pp.361-363.

43 F.3d 1261, reversed and remanded.

SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and O'CONNOR, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., joined, and in Parts I and III of which SOUTER, GINSBURG, and BREYER, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 364. SOUTER, J., filed an opinion concurring in part, dissenting in part, and concurring in the judgment, in which GINSBURG and BREYER, JJ., joined, post, p. 393. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 404.

Full Text of Opinion

Primary Holding

Prisoners have a constitutional right to access the courts, but this is not violated when a prison lacks legal research facilities or legal assistance unless prisoners have been substantially harmed by these deficiencies.


In a class action, prisoners in Arizona argued that officials at the Arizona Department of Corrections had failed to provide them with adequate legal research facilities. They claimed that this violated their rights to access to the courts, established by Bounds v. Smith (1977). The prisoners received an injunction from the trial court that required the ADOC to implement substantial reforms in its law libraries and legal assistance programs.



  • Antonin Scalia (Author)
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Sandra Day O'Connor
  • Anthony M. Kennedy
  • Clarence Thomas

To have standing to bring a claim, a party must prove actual injury. This cannot be shown on the basis of a shortcoming in a prison law library or legal assistance program, since there is no independent right to those facilities. They are intended merely as a way to ensure that prisoners can have access to courts to seek recourse for violations of their constitutional rights. As a result, a prisoner must prove that the shortcomings of these facilities actually undermined him in bringing a legal claim that was related to his incarceration. Insofar as Bounds ruled that the state must allow prisoners to discover violations and litigate them in court, it is disclaimed. Rational basis review is the appropriate standard for reviewing claims regarding a prisoner's lack of access to courts.


  • Clarence Thomas (Author)

Federal judges cannot issue such a detailed injunction to a state prison, which must be controlled by the state and its officials. The lower court greatly abused its discretion with that order. States are not constitutionally obligated to provide law libraries and legal assistance in prisons.


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)

The state has an affirmative duty to protect the right of prisoners to access the courts, which is one of the liberty rights that they retain during their incarceration. The standing requirement should not be so strictly interpreted. Instead, standing should be found when a prisoner claims that he has been refused the right to effective access to the courts.

Concurrence/Dissent In Part

  • David H. Souter (Author)
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Stephen G. Breyer

Case Commentary

Although the Court appeared to lack sympathy for the underlying nature of the complaint, the decision was based largely on the procedural issue that the prisoners lacked standing because their grievances were overly generalized.

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