Habeas Petitions and Access to Law Libraries (Part 1)

by | Jan 3, 2022 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On November 1, 2021, the United States Supreme Court denied a petition for a writ of certiorari in the case of U.S. v. RonRico Simmons, Jr. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting statement. She was joined in dissent by Justice Kagan.

The dissent wrote in relevant part: RonRico Simmons, Jr., alleges that he was unable to file a habeas petition within one year of his federal conviction, the general deadline for seeking such relief, because the state prisons where he was imprisoned had no materials about federal habeas law. See 28 U.S.C. §2255(f )(1). The Sixth Circuit, however, concluded that even if the state prisons lacked any such legal materials, Simmons’ petition was time barred because Simmons, in his pro se filing, failed “to allege a causal connection” between his inability to access materials about federal habeas law and his failure to file a federal habeas petition. 974 F. 3d 791, 798 (2020).

Because this petition does not meet our traditional criteria for review, I do not dissent from the denial of certiorari. I write separately to stress that the Sixth Circuit’s parsimonious reading of Simmons’ pro se motion appears contrary to our longstanding instruction that pro se filings must be “liberally construed.” Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U. S. 97, 106 (1976). This Court has long held that “‘the fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts requires prison authorities to assist inmates in the preparation and filing of meaningful legal papers by providing prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law.’” Lewis v. Casey, 518 U. S. 343, 346 (1996) (quoting Bounds v. Smith, 430 U. S. 817, 828 (1977).

The Lewis opinion cited by Justice Sotomayor was authored by the late Justice Scalia. Justices Sotomayor and Scalia would have likely been at odds with each other’s analytical styles and approaches. Justice Sotomayor has a tendency to side with the accused in criminal cases. Justice Scalia tended to side with the police.