Overton v. Bazzetta

LOCATION:Lawrence County Courthouse

DOCKET NO.: 02-94
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 539 US 126 (2003)
ARGUED: Mar 26, 2003
DECIDED: Jun 16, 2003

Deborah LaBelle – Argued the cause for the respondents
Jeffrey A. Lamken – Department of Justice, argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting petitioners
Roderick M. Hills, Jr. – for the National Council of La Raza et al. as amici curiae
Thomas L. Casey – Lansing, Michigan, argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

In 1995, after the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) banned visits to inmates by little brothers and sisters, nieces, nephews and other minors, a group of prisoners sued. They claimed that the ban violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment, and that it restricted their First Amendment right to association. The district court agreed, ruling against the ban. On appeal, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the district court’s ruling.


Did the Department of Corrections ban on visits by minors violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment and the freedom of association of the First Amendment?

Media for Overton v. Bazzetta

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 26, 2003 in Overton v. Bazzetta

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 16, 2003 in Overton v. Bazzetta

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 02-94, Overton versus Bazzetta will be announced by Justice Kennedy.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

This case involves a constitutional challenge to regulations in the State of Michigan.

Those regulations are promulgated by the Michigan Prison Officials and they limit noncontact visits with the inmates in the State prisons.

An increasing number of prison visitors were causing difficulties for prison officials in maintaining security and controlling drug use within the prisons.

So, Michigan promulgated these regulations which limit visitation.

Each inmate now may receive visits only from individuals on an approved list.

The list may include an unlimited number of immediate family members plus ten others.

Minors may visit only if they are children, grandchildren, or siblings of the inmate which excludes nieces and nephews.

They may visit only when accompanied by a guardian or an immediate family member.

A child may not visit if the inmate’s parental rights have been terminated.

A former prisoner may not visit unless he is an immediate family member of the inmate and the warden approves.

Prisoners who incur two substance abuse infractions in prison, that is drugs or alcohol, may not receive any visitors except clergy and lawyers but they may seek reinstatement of their visitation privileges after two years.

When a group of prisoners and their friends and family members sued the prison official under Section 1983 to challenge the regulation the District Court certified the matter as a class action and the class contended the regulations as they pertain to these noncontact visits violate a constitutional right to intimate association and that the limits on visits for inmates with substance abuse infractions violated the Eight Amendment Cruel and Unseal Punishment Clause as well.

The District Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held the restrictions on noncontact visits to be unconstitutional and we now reverse.

Although, we have said that the constitution protects certain kinds of highly personal relationships, in this case, we need not explore or define the asserted association right or determine the extent to which it survives incarceration.

That is because the challenge regulations do bear a rational relation to legitimate penalogical interest.

We find the regulations are valid under the criteria set forth in one of the important cases in this area issued by this Court, a case called Turner versus Safley, and the opinion recites all of the tests of Turner versus Safley and applies them to these regulations, the restriction on visits by children not related to the legitimate interest in prison security and protecting children from exposure to harmful inmate conduct, the prohibition on visits by former inmates.

There is a self-evident connection to the legitimate interests in prison security and deterrence of future crimes.

The restrictions on visits by inmates with substance abuse violations serves the goal of deterring the use of drugs and alcohol in prison.

This is particularly true with high-risk inmates who are already subject to severe restriction and if we were to say that there could be on added restrictions on visitation for use of drug and alcohol, there would be a little incentive for those prisoners to follow these rules, and furthermore accommodating the asserted rights would cause significant allocation and reallocation of prison financial resources and would impair the ability of officials to protect those inside the prison walls.

For these and other reasons set forth in the opinion, the regulation satisfied the Turner test.

They are not invalid on their face.

If the withdrawal of all visitation periods were permanent or for a much longer period or applied in an arbitrary manner to a particular inmate, the case would present different considerations.

The claims here, however, do not support the ruling of the Court of Appeals that the entire regulation is invalid, and we also hold that the regulations do not impose a cruel and unusual punishment.

The regulations do not create unconstitutional conditions of confinement violating the Eight Amendment.

We do not hold and we do not imply that any right to intimate association is altogether terminated by incarceration or is always irrelevant to claims made by prisoners.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.

Justice Stevens has filed a concurring opinion in which Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer join; Justice Thomas has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in which Justice Scalia joins.