Bounds v. Smith

PETITIONER: Vernon Lee Bounds; Commission, State Department of Corrections; Stanley Blackledge, Warden, Cetral State Prison; R. L. Turner, Superintendent of Odom Correctional Institution et al.
RESPONDENT: Robert (Bobby) Smith, Donald W. Morgan, John Harrington et al.
LOCATION: Central Prison

DOCKET NO.: 75-915
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 430 US 817 (1977)
ARGUED: Nov 01, 1976
DECIDED: Apr 27, 1977
GRANTED: Apr 05, 1976

Barry Nakell - for respondents
Jacob L. Safron - for petitioners

Facts of the case

The North Carolina Department of Correction (“DoC”) had custody of approximately 10,000 prisoners housed in 80 prison units in 67 different counties. The only unit having a writ room and some semblance of a legal library was the Central Prison in Raleigh. Robert Smith, Donald W. Morgan, and John Harrington were all inmates in the DoC’s custody. In consolidated cases, the plaintiffs alleged that the state of North Carolina failed to provide its prisoners with proper legal facilities. They argued that this violated their right of access to the courts guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The district court granted the plaintiffs motion for summary judgment, ordering the responsible state officials to submit a proposed plan to provide library facilities for the use of indigent prisoners seeking to file pro se habeas or civil rights actions, or to provide some acceptable substitute. The court suggested that the state could fulfill its obligations by making legal counsel or assistance available, but did not mandate this approach. In response, the state proposed to construct seven new law libraries within the prison system, to expand the facilities at Central Prison, and to provide all inmates with access to these libraries upon request.

The plaintiffs protested that the plan was inadequate, but the court rejected their objections. It held that North Carolina was not constitutionally required to provide legal assistance as well as libraries. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit, affirmed, but held that the plan failed to provide female prisoners with the same access as male prisoners.


Did the First and Fourteenth Amendments require the North Carolina Department of Corrections to assist inmates in the preparation and filing of legal papers by providing adequate law libraries or adequate legal assistance?

Media for Bounds v. Smith

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 01, 1976 in Bounds v. Smith

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 27, 1977 in Bounds v. Smith

Warren E. Burger:

The judgments and opinion of the Court in 75-915, Bounds against Smith will be announced by Mr. Justice Marshall.

Thurgood Marshall:

This case is here from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

The respondents who are inmates of the North Carolina State Prisons brought this action in the Federal District Court against the petitioner of the State Prison Administrators.

Respondents claim their rights of access to the Courts guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment required the State to assist them in preparing habeas corpus as civil rights actions by making available a source of legal knowledge such as law books or independent legal advisors.

The District Court, following a per curiam decision of this Court six years ago agreed and ordered the State to establish minimum prison law libraries.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.

For reasons explained and an opinion filed today, we hold that the fundamental right of access to the Courts requires prison authorities to assist inmates in preparation in filing a meaningful legal papers provide -- by providing with adequate law books or adequate assistant from persons trained in the law.

Accordingly, we affirm judgment below.

Mr. Justice Powell has filed a consent -- a concurring statement.

The Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Stewart and Mr. Justice Rehnquist have filed dissenting opinions.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you Mr. Justice Marshall.