The University of St. Thomas School of Law Appellate Clinic won a major victory in prison litigation on Monday when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of an Arizona death row inmate’s claim that prison officials may not read legal mail between prisoners and their counsel.
The ruling came in a published opinion, setting the precedent for all federal courts in the Ninth Circuit, which covers the western part of the country. In the opinion, the court held that the prisoner has a valid claim, if reading of his confidential letter is proven on the facts, and sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.
The case, Scott Nordstrom v. Charles Ryan, et al., was argued in April by then third-year law students Joy Nissen and Michelle King, who worked on behalf of the school’s Appellate Clinic led by Professor Gregory Sisk. The clinical team began working on the case in summer 2013, writing briefs and successfully convincing four organizations to file amicus briefs on their behalf – including the Yale Law School Ethics Bureau, Prison Law Office/American Civil Liberties Union, Equal Justice Initiative, and Arizona Capital Representation Project.
Nearly alone among the states, the Arizona Department of Corrections authorizes corrections officers to read the contents of a prisoner’s outgoing letter to his attorney both to establish the absence of contraband and to evaluate whether it has legal content. In their argument to the appeals court, Nissen and King contended that the Arizona prison policy interferes with the confidential attorney-client relationship in violation of the U.S. Constitution. They argued that a prisoner’s right to assistance of counsel is placed in unique jeopardy by Arizona’s insistence on prying into the contents of his legal mail while he resists execution.
Nordstrom, a Florence, Ariz., based inmate, had filed a civil suit challenging the policy of the prison in which he is detained, but lost in district court, where he represented himself. When he appealed that ruling to the Ninth Circuit, Sisk picked up his case.
The Appellate Clinic is a year-long course that charges students to study written and oral advocacy, appellate courts, appellate jurisdiction, and the rules of appellate procedure. Clinical students represent a client pro bono under faculty supervision, briefing and arguing appellate cases on their behalf.