The Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 yesterday that states must protect the right of prisoners to access to the courts by providing them with law libraries or adequate help from persons trained in the law.
The majority held that "the fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts requires prison authorities to assist inmates in the preparation and filing of meaningful [WORD ILLEGIBLE] papers."
Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote for the majority that the court recognized that right in 1941. But dissenting Justice William H. Rehnquist said the right "is found nowhere in the Constitution" and was created in yesterday's decision "virtually out of whole cloth."
By coincidence, the court acted a day after the American Bar Association released a report on a 2 1/2-year study by an ABA criminal justice committee on the rights of prisoners.
Recommending draft standards that said may seem "radical" alongside those recommended by the ABA in the past, the committee said that prisoners should have the same rights as free citizens except where restriction are needed to insure orderlyconfinement or to protect the rights and safety of the prison community.
One recommendation is that working prisoners be paid wages and receive other employment benefits - but be required to pay taxes and to reimburse the state for room, board and [WORD ILLEGIBLE] other expenses.
The 293-page report, published in [WORD ILLEGIBLE] current "American Criminal Law Review," also recommneds abolition [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of the parole system and its replacement with an independent agency to determine the duration of individual [WORD ILLEGIBLE]
The ABA's policy-making House of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] is scheduled to consider the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] meeting in August, 1978. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] committee chairman was Prof. Albert S. Miller of Georgetown University Law Center.
The court decision will help so-called jailhouse lawyers overcome their lack of legal expertise in pressing their cases and in helping fellow inmates.
For a lawyer to file a pleading without first researching the issues [WORD ILLEGIBLE] verge on incompetence," Marshall wrote. "If a lawyer must [WORD ILLEGIBLE] perform such preliminary research, it is [WORD ILLEGIBLE] less vital" for a prisoner acting without one, he said.
A state response to a prisoner's pleading "will undoubtedly contain seemingly authoritative citations," Marshall continued. "Without a library an inmate will be unable to rebut the state's argument."
Dissenting Justice Potter Stewart said that "In the vast majority of cases, access to a law library will . . . simply result in the filing of pleadings heavily larded with irrleevatn legalisms - possessing the veneer but lacking the substances of professional competence."
Marshall acknowledged that economic factors may be considered in choosing methods to give access to the courts, but said that "the cost of protecting a constitutional right cannot justify its total denial."
Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, the third dissenter, said he could find neither a basis for a requirement by federal courts that states "fund costly law libraries for prison inmates" nor "the source of the 'rigth of access to the courts.'"
North Carolina Attorney General Rufus L. Edmisten said it is "ironic" that his state now must provide law libraries for convicts although it "does not provide state-supported libraries even for its judges and prosecutors."
The court acted in a case bought in a U.S. District Court by three state prisoners in North Carolina, which houses 13,000 inmates in 77 separte prisons in 67 countries. The system had one law library and provided no other legal assistance.
The trial judge ruled the sole library "severly inadequate" but left it to the state to devise "a constitutionally sound" alternative. The state proposed to set up seven libraries for all of the prisons plus smaller facilities in penitentiary, and to provide prisoners with transportation and housing for full day's research.