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Inmates' retaliation claim prevails as high court turns away Idaho appeal

By The Associated Press


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BOISE, Idaho — The U.S. Supreme Court this week left intact lower court rulings that found Idaho retaliated against state inmates who complained about prison conditions.

The high court on Dec. 10 said it would not consider Idaho's appeal of the lower court rulings.

The American Civil Liberties Union yesterday hailed denial of the state's request for a hearing before the court.

"We are delighted that the Supreme Court rejected that request, and that the carefully reasoned decisions of the district court and the 9th Circuit remain intact," said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU's National Prison Project.

U.S. Magistrate Larry Boyle ruled in September 1999 that Idaho Department of Correction officials retaliated against six state inmates who complained about conditions at the prisons south of Boise. The prisoners worked as clerks to help fellow inmates prepare legal papers.

Boyle found that prison officials retaliated against them by bringing false disciplinary charges or inflicting other forms of punishment to deter them from filing grievances or lawsuits.

But he also found that the incidents were "isolated instances over a period of many years," and that inmates had failed to prove a pattern of retaliation against he entire prison population.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Boyle's decision last July. That prompted Idaho Attorney General Al Lance's office, on behalf of the Department of Correction, to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case.

The state's petition was denied Dec. 10.

"It's not very surprising. The United States Supreme Court generally grants fewer than 2 percent of the petitions asking them to take cases," said Deputy Attorney General Michael Henderson.

He said the state's concern was that Boyle and the appeals court used too liberal a standard in determining whether prisoners' First Amendment rights to pursue litigation were "chilled" by the threat of retaliation.

Appeals courts in some other circuits have ruled that the standard should be applied to actions that might have a chilling effect on a "person of ordinary firmness," Henderson said, but the 9th Circuit applied a subjective standard.

"That makes it very easy for a person to reach that threshold by simply saying, 'I felt I was chilled,'" he said.

But Jack Van Valkenburgh, executive director of the ACLU of Idaho, called the Supreme Court's refusal to hear the case "a great vindication for Idaho prisoners."

The case was the same one that prompted Boyle and the appeals court to find that two state lawyers violated ethical and professional obligations by secretly reading confidential correspondence between inmates and their lawyers.


2001-2002 Supreme Court term coverage
Analysis and other coverage of the 2001-2002 U.S. Supreme Court term.  11.01.01

Idaho state attorneys charged with secret interception of lawyer-client correspondence
Federal suit charges Department of Correction lawyers with broaching First Amendment rights of inmates and their ACLU attorneys.  03.12.99