Kentucky Inmate Loses Access to Courts Claim Based on Lack of Law Library and Legal Materials

A Kentucky inmate who alleged that a detention center’s lack of a law library and his inability to conduct independent legal research hindered his access to the courts lost his claim before a federal district court. The court reasoned that a prison does not have to provide a law library and that the inmate wasn’t harmed because he was represented by an attorney.

Wendell Leonard Cruse, a Kentucky inmate who was housed at Boyd County Detention Center in Catlessburg, filed a civil rights lawsuit against prison officials based on a variety of constitutional claims.

One of these claims centered on the First Amendment-based right of accessing the courts. Under this theory, inmates have a First Amendment right to petition the courts for a redress of grievances. Prison officials are supposed to provide inmates with either sufficient legal materials or access to their legal counsel.

Cruse alleged that prison officials told him that they did not have a law library or law books for him to use and that he would need to speak to his attorney. Cruse did have a court-appointed attorney that represented him.

Cruse alleged that he had to accept a plea agreement after speaking with his public defender. But, Cruse claimed he accepted such a deal only because he did not have the ability to conduct his own independent legal research.

U.S. District Court Judge Henry R. Wilhoit, Jr. rejected this constitutional claim in his July 5, 2018, decision in Cruse v. Burchett. Wilhoit ruled that “where counsel is appointed to represent the prisoner plaintiff in his criminal action pending against him, as a matter of law, the state has fulfilled its constitutional obligation to provide him with full access to the courts.”
Cruse had argued that he had a right to conduct his own independent legal research. The judge disagreed, reasoning: “Cruse does not have any First Amendment right to meaningful access to the courts with respect to efforts to represent himself in his criminal case.”

The decision is symptomatic of a penal system that often does not provide inmates with adequate legal materials. Even though prisoners are facing the deprivation of liberty, courts have interpreted quite narrowly the important right of accessing the courts.

David L. Hudson, Jr. is the author, co-author, or co-editor of more than 40 books, including First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (2012) and Prisoners’ Rights (2007).

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