The Supreme Court yesterday erected a legal barrier to damage suits against state penal officials accused of violating the constitutional rights of prisoners.
The justices divided 7 to 2 in a case involving Apolinar Navarette Jr., an inmate at Soledad Prison in California in 1971-72.
To the irritation of prison officials he wrote letters to legal aid groups, law students, the press, other inamtes with legal problems or expertixe, and friends. But a lot of the letters never left Soledad.
After Navarette was released, he sued the state corrections director, the warden, the assistant warden and three subordinaties, including the mail handler.
His key claim was that they deprived him of freedom of expression and due process of law by negligently failing to mail or by confiscating some of his letters, in violation of prison regulations.
Without trying the case on the merits, a federal judge summarily dismissed the claim on the ground that the Reconstruction era civil rights law relied upon by Navarette gave the jailers qualified immunity from persoanl liability for damages for acts performed in the course of official conduct.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Constitution protected prisoners' outgoing mail, that the civil rights law authorized Navarette's suit and that the untested evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to him, made the summary judgment improper.*
In the opinion for the Supreme Court, Justice Byron R. White wrote that the prison officials are not entitled to absolute immunity of the kind that protects judges, prosecutors and legislators.
But, he said, the trial judge was correct in giving the jailers qualified immunity because it hadn't been shown either that they knew, or should have known, that their actions were violating Navarette's rights, or that they had acted maliciously.
White pointed out that at the time Navarette was confined there was no established First Amendment right protecting the mailing privileges of state prisoners.
In a dessenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens said that in developing its immunity doctrine, the court had been "careful to limit its holdings to specific officials and to insist that a considered inquiry into common law was an essential precondition to the recognition of the proper immunity for any offcial. These limits have now been abandoned.
Stevens also said that the sketchy recorded establishes neither that the officials acted in good faith nor that they didn't violate Navarette's right of access to legal assistance. The court "acted unwisely in reaching out to decide the merits of an affirmative defense before any evidence has been heard" he said. The other dissenter, on different grounds, was Chief Justice Warren E. Burger.
In two other cases, the court held, 8 to 0, that:
The Age Discrimination in Employement Act authorizes a worker alleging a violation to demand a jury trial.
The Federal Youth Corrections Act permits a judge, as a condition of probation, to impose fines, restitution, or both.