Access to Courts

Case Law Relating to Access to Courts

  • Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483 (1969): Unobstructed access for postconviction prisoners to others with knowledge of the law (including other prisoners) for habeas claims.
  • Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974): Access to courts is not limited to habeas claims — civil rights claims are also entitled to protection from obstruction.
  • Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977): Seminal access-to-courts case: J. Marshall included affirmative right to pro bono services and prison law library (this part was not without dissent!).
  • Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987): Prison regulations that impinge on prisoners’ constitutional rights are valid if they are serving legitimate punitive ends.
  • Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343 (1996): Scalia writing for the Court introduced “actual injury” requirement — corrective to Bounds, stating that prisoners should only be allowed to bring defensive claims removing existing obstructions.
  • Benjamin v. Fraser, 264 F.3d 175 (2d Cir. 2001): Noted that Lewis wasn’t relevant to pretrial criminal detainees, who are at the beginning stages of defending themselves against the government (and their detention isn’t punitive, just administrative).


Access to Courts in an Immigration Contextu


  • 8 U.S.C. § 1362: right to retain counsel at private expense
  • 8 U.S.C. § 1229a(b)(4): right to a full and fair hearing
  • Orantes-Hernandez v. Thornburgh, 919 F.2d 549 (9th Cir. 1990): Immigration detainees’ access to courts would be interfered with if detention officials obstructed communication with attorneys
  • Cohen v. Longshore, 621 F.3d 1311 (10th Cir. 2010): Detention mail clerk refused to send immigrant’s mail, so he couldn’t file an objection to a judge’s recommendation in a civil matter. Court said prison can’t interfere with the prisoner’s legal actions.
  • Lyon v. ICE, 171 F.Supp.3d 961 (N.D. Cal. 2016): Benjamin‘s reasoning is applied here to immigration detainees: Lewis’ “actual injury” requirement is not relevant. Detention facility interfered with ability to call attorneys.