Montana officials appeal prisoner’s First Amendment case to high court

Thursday, May 11, 2000

The U.S. Supreme Court could define the parameters of prisoners’ First
Amendment rights if it agrees to review a case out of Montana State Prison.

Kevin Murphy, a prisoner who was trained as an inmate law clerk, sued prison
officials after he was punished for sending a letter providing legal assistance
to another inmate, Pat Tracy.

Murphy told Tracy in a February 1995 letter not to plead guilty to assaulting
a prison guard because Murphy could get “at least 100 witnesses” to testify
about the guard’s abusive treatment of inmates.

After prison officials read Murphy’s letter (pursuant to prison policy), they
punished him for allegedly violating prison rules that prohibit interference
with the orderly operation of the prison.

Murphy sued in 1995, and a federal judge dismissed his suit in September
1997. However, last November, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court
of Appeals reversed the judge’s decision in Murphy v. Shaw.

The unanimous appeals panel acknowledged that the government had a legitimate
interest in maintaining security and order at the prison. However, the panel
noted that prison officials’ “interest in security and order is at a low ebb
when the correspondence in question is legal advice relating to a pending or
potential case.”

The Montana Department of Corrections petitioned the 9th Circuit for full
panel review, which was denied last January. Last month, Montana officials
appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in Shaw v. Murphy. ( 99-1613).

The corrections department asserts that the panel decision by the 9th Circuit
judges extends prisoners’ First Amendment rights too far.

“This case is somewhat unique,” said Dave Ohler, chief legal counsel for the
Montana Department of Corrections. “Inmates do have a right of access to the
courts, but that right should not extend to protect an inmate who is merely
assisting another inmate.

“The problem with the lower court’s decision is that it gives inmates who are
helping other inmates greater rights than the inmates who are actually seeking
to access the courts and their rights in the first place,” Ohler said.

Jeffrey Renz, Murphy’s attorney and a professor at the University of Montana,
says the “state has blown the whole case out of proportion.”

“Murphy’s First Amendment rights were violated because he was punished for
the content of his speech,” Renz said. “The 9th Circuit decision was important
because it articulated that inmates have a First Amendment right to assist
another inmate about pending cases.”

Renz said he doubted the U.S. Supreme Court would review the