Access to Courts

The right to challenge unconstitutional abuse in our court system creates a vital check against brutality, squalor, and torture in our prisons and jails. When incarcerated men and women suffer massive injustices that violate the law, prison officials too often exploit technical rules to keep them out of court.

We fight to keep the courtroom door open so that men and women who are locked up can vindicate their rights.

Key Case: Woodson v. McCollum

Woodson v. McCollum concluded in an important ruling that paves the way for greater access to courts by prisoners who have been the victim of unlawful conduct.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) is the 1996 federal law, which governs how an individual in prison can bring forth constitutional violations within the federal court system. It imposes a number of obstacles specifically designed to reduce the amount of federal litigation coming from prisoners. One of these obstacles is the “three strikes” rule, which requires the prisoner to pre-pay a filing fee if the individual has had three previous cases dismissed.

Marcus D. Woodson filed a complaint alleging serious constitutional violations in state court—not federal court. However, the prison officials he sued removed his case from state court to federal court and, once in federal court, the district court dismissed Mr. Woodson’s claim under the “three strikes” rule.  We represented Mr. Woodson before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.  In November 2017, the Tenth Circuit issued an important published opinion ruling that that the three-strikes provision does not apply to cases that a prisoner initiates in state court. The Tenth Circuit is the first court of appeals to squarely resolve this issue.

Litigation is often one of the few, and most important, means for prisoners to address issues of abuse and mistreatment. The Tenth Circuit ruling means that, regardless of previous cases or ability to pay, many prisoners will have access to state courts to raise constitutional violations and hold prisons accountable.

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