Bounds v. Smith Case Brief

Facts of the Case

Inmates incarcerated in North Carolina’s correctional facilities filed suits under 42 USCS 1983, alleging that they were denied access to the courts, in violation of their Fourteenth Amendment rights, by the state’s failure to provide legal research facilities. After consolidating the actions and finding in favor of the inmates, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina approved a plan proposed by the state for the establishment of several libraries across the state, and held that legal assistance in addition to libraries need not be provided. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court judgment as to the basic provisions of the plan (except insofar as it denied equal access to the facilities for women prisoners). Petitioners, officials of the State of North Carolina, challenged the decision.




“Yes. In a 6-3 decision written by Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Court held that the constitution required the North Carolina Department of Correction to provide prisoners with legal assistance as part of prisoners’ right of access to the courts. Justice Marshall emphasized that prisoners have a well-established right of adequate, effective and meaningful access to the courts. He wrote that this access generally required states to shoulder affirmative obligations to provide meaningful access, including paying for trial counsel for indigent clients.Justice Marshall acknowledged that habeas corpus and civil rights complaints only needed to set forth facts giving rise to the complaint, but rejected North Carolina’s argument that law libraries or legal assistance were not essential to frame those complaints. A typical client would expect any lawyer preparing either complaint to research the law to determine whether an actionable claim existed. Justice Marshall rejected the state’s argument that inmates were ill-equipped to use the tools of the trade of the legal profession.Justice Marshall also rejected North Carolina’s interpretation of Ross v. Moffitt , where the Court held that prisoners’ right to appointed counsel in appeals to criminal cases was limited. Here, the Court was concerned with prisoners seeking new trials, release from confinement, or vindication of fundamental civil rights. Justice Marshall noted that adequate law libraries were only one constitutionally acceptable method of assuring meaningful access to the courts. Finally, he rejected the state’s argument that the district court exceeded its powers by ordering North Carolina to devise a remedy for the violation.Justice Louis Powell concurred, emphasizing that the majority’s holding did not pass on the kinds of claims that state or federal courts were constitutionally required to hear.Chief Justice Warren Burger dissented. He could not determine the source of the constitutional right of access to the courts, or of the requirement that the states foot the bill for assuring that access for prisoners. Chief Justice Burger noted that the right of prisoners to collaterally attack convictions was derived from federal statutes and not from the constitution itself.Justice Rehnquist dissented, joined by Chief Justice Burger. He characterized the majority’s opinion as a reiteration of the reasoning in Younger v. Gilmore , where the Court also failed to identify a constitutional source for prisoners’ right of access to the courts. He emphasized that lawful imprisonment properly resulted in a retraction of prisoners’ rights.”

Case Information

Citation: 430 US 817 (1977)
Argued: Nov 1, 1976
Decided: Apr 27, 1977
Granted: Apr 5, 1976
Case Brief: 1977