Habeas Petitions and Access to Law Libraries (Part 2)

by | Jan 5, 2022 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

The dissent continued in relevant part: Specifically, prisons must provide the legal materials and “tools that the inmates need in order to attack their sentences, directly or collaterally.” Lewis, 518 U. S., at 355. Several Circuits have held, therefore, that a prison’s failure to provide these “tools” may constitute an unconstitutional government impairment that tolls the 1-year statutory filing deadline for seeking habeas relief under §2255 or §2244. If this rule applied to Simmons, his habeas petition was timely because he filed it within a year of his arrival at a prison that enabled him to access federal legal materials. See §2255(f)(2).

The Sixth Circuit held that Simmons’ petition was time barred, even if he had no access to federal habeas materials and even if this lack of access was unconstitutional, because it found his explanation “conclusory” as to why a lack of all federal habeas materials impeded his filing. 974 F. 3d, at 797. The court acknowledged that Simmons had alleged that the lack of access to federal law “prevented” him from filing and that he “did not, strictly speaking, need to answer any particular question” in the allegations of his petition. It nonetheless concluded that he should have known to provide additional details by, for instance, explaining that he discovered the lack of materials when he attempted to go to the library or asked for legal assistance. Ibid.

The Sixth Circuit’s reasoning appears questionable. To the extent the court was imposing a diligence requirement for invoking the §2255(f)(2) filing deadline, that requirement appears nowhere in the provision’s text. To the extent the court was not imposing such a requirement, it was likely imposing an inappropriately high bar on a pro se filing.

The Sixth Circuit’s analysis mirrors the illogical reasoning underpinning discovery violations. Courts routinely find harmless error in the State’s failure to provide discovery unless a defendant can point to how the discovery would have changed the outcome of the case. Without the discovery to review, it is not possible to point to specific aspects of it. Without access to the law library materials, it is not possible to point to specific materials that would have helped with the habeas petition.