In an important victory for the principle that the courts should be open to all for redress, the Rhode Island Supreme Court today declared unconstitutional an archaic state law enacted over a century-and-a-half ago that declares inmates serving life sentences at the ACI to be “dead in all respects” with respect to “all civil rights.” The ACLU of Rhode Island had filed a “friend of the court brief” in the case, urging that the court find the statute unconstitutional.
Today’s court decision came in consolidated lawsuits brought on behalf of Cody-Allen Zab and Jose Rivera, two prisoners serving life sentences at the ACI who filed negligence lawsuits against ACI officials, but whose suits were stymied on the grounds that the “civil death” statute barred them from seeking judicial relief for their alleged injuries. However, in a 4-1 decision today, the state’s highest court held that the “civil death” statute violated a Rhode Island Constitution provision that the court said guarantees a “fundamental right” of access to the courts.
In the opinion written by Justice Erin Lynch-Prata, the Court held: “The civil death statute deprives those persons imprisoned at the ACI for life of their right to bring civil actions in our state courts. It is clear to us that the right infringed upon by the civil death statute is the right to seek redress for any type of injury or complaint, thereby unconstitutionally denying the plaintiffs the very right to gain access to the courts.” The suits were filed by Sonja Deyoe, who, both privately and as an ACLU cooperating attorney, has been challenging the legality of the civil death law for years.
Rhode Island was apparently the only state in the country still enforcing a law like this, whose origins date back to ancient English common law. As far back as 1976, a court struck down Missouri’s civil death statute, noting that “the concept of civil death has been condemned by virtually every court and commentator to study it over the last thirty years.” The court observed that such laws had been characterized even before then as “archaic,” “outmoded,” “an outdated and inscrutable common law precept,” and “a medieval fiction in a modern world.” In 1937, when 18 states still had civil death laws, a law review article called the concept “outworn.”
In 2015, the ACLU and attorney Deyoe challenged the statute as it applied to bar inmates serving life sentences from marrying, but the court in that case said that a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court summary affirmance, without a written opinion, of a federal court decision upholding a New York statute that barred inmates sentenced to life imprisonment from marrying applied. ACLU cooperating attorneys have pending in federal court a separate lawsuit challenging the statute’s constitutionality and which, last year, U.S. District Court Judge William Smith had refused to dismiss.
The state law that was struck down today reads: “Every person imprisoned in the adult correctional institutions for life shall, with respect to all rights of property, to the bond of matrimony and to all civil rights and relations of any nature whatsoever, be deemed to be dead in all respects, as if his or her natural death had taken place at the time of conviction.”
Attorney Deyoe said today: “Today’s decision from the Court affirms the basic principle of our judicial system that the doors to justice shall remain open to all. I am honored to have been able to participate in these cases to help insure that all people of this state keep that sacred right.”
ACLU of Rhode Island cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger, who filed the ACLU’s brief, added: “Our court brief reviewed the history of the Civil Death Act to show that it was archaic and the product of a long-ago refuted philosophy rejected by the courts and legislatures in other states, leaving Rhode Island as the sole state in the country with such a law on its books. The Court today went right to the heart of the issue, grounding the decision in the guarantees of the Rhode Island Constitution. I personally want to congratulate plaintiffs’ attorney Sonja Deyoe who has championed this issue for at least a decade, taking on pro bono challenges both as private counsel and as cooperating counsel for the ACLU of RI.”
More information on the case, including a copy of the decision, can be found below.