Ky. prisoner can’t force records to reflect name change

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

An inmate does not have a First Amendment right to force court and prison officials to amend their records to reflect his name change, the Kentucky Court of Appeals recently ruled.

In May 2003, a court in Morgan County approved the legal name change of Raemon Terrell Anderson to Khalid Abdul-Samad Zaahir. Zaahir said he adopted an Islamic name, because his religion requires adherents to reject names forced on slave ancestors.

After his legal name change, Zaahir faced indictment in Jefferson County on 10 counts of armed robbery and other counts, including charges as a “persistent offender.” He pleaded guilty to the charges.

The case was titled “Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Raemon Anderson.” In certain court pleadings, Zaahir still signed his name as “Raemon Anderson.”

In February 2009, a lawyer for Zaahir filed a motion in his post-conviction proceedings to recognize Zaahir’s name change. Zaahir later filed a motion on his own asking that the Jefferson County court and Kentucky Department of Corrections amend their records to reflect the name change from Anderson to Zaahir.

Zaahir asserted that he has a First Amendment right under the free-exercise clause to force both court and prison officials to recognize his religiously inspired name change. Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Geoffrey P. Morris rejected Zaahir’s claim, writing “need proof of name change.”

On appeal, a divided Kentucky Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to affirm Morris’ dismissal in Khalid A. Zaahir v. Kentucky. Writing for the majority in the Dec. 4 opinion, Judge Kelly Thompson recognized that prisoners retain free-exercise-of-religion rights in prison. However, Thompson said that Zaahir failed to explain how “the refusal to amend the records precludes him from practicing his Islamic faith.”

Thompson also relied on a 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision, Imam Ali Abudullah Akbar v. Canney (1980), which found that an inmate did not have a free-exercise right to force prison officials to change their records to reflect name changes. “We adopt this reasoning and extend it to the maintenance of court records,” Thompson wrote.

Judge Denise G. Clayton dissented, though not on constitutional grounds. She wrote that the case should be sent back to the lower court because the trial judge should have offered another reason for denial other than “need proof of name change.”

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