Murray, Director, Virginia Department of Corrections v. Giarratano
Decided on June 23, 1989; 492 US 1


A. Issues Discussed:  Criminal Justice (death penalty), 8th Amendment, 14th Amendment

B. Legal Question Presented: 

Is providing counsel upon request necessary for death row prisoners to enjoy their constitutional right of access to the courts in pursuit of state habeas corpus relief?

A. Background:

Respondents, a class of indigent Virginia death row inmates who did not have counsel to pursue post-conviction proceedings, brought a suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 in Federal District Court against various state officials, alleging that the Constitution required that they be provided with counsel at the State's expense for the purpose of pursuing collateral proceedings related to their convictions and sentences.

The District Court concluded that respondents should receive greater assistance than outlined in Bounds v. Smith, which held that a prisoner's "right of access" to the courts required a state to furnish access to adequate law libraries or other legal aid so the prisoners might prepare petitions for judicial relief - since death row inmates have a limited amount of time to prepare petitions, since their cases are unusually complex, and since the shadow of impending execution interferes with their ability to do legal work. 

The District Court found that Virginia's efforts - access to a law library or lawbooks, the availability of "unit attorneys," and appointment of counsel after a petition is filed - did not afford prisoners meaningful access to the courts because they did not guarantee the prisoners continuous assistance of counsel. Thus, the court ordered Virginia to develop a program for the appointment of counsel, upon request, to indigent death row inmates wishing to pursue habeas corpus in state court, but, in light of Ross v. Moffitt, not in federal court. The Court of Appeals affirmed. It viewed the lower court's special "considerations" relating to death row inmates as findings of fact which were not clearly erroneous. It reasoned that the case was not controlled by Pennsylvania v. Finley, which held that neither the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment nor the equal protection guarantee of "meaningful access" required the State to appoint counsel for indigent prisoners seeking post-conviction relief - since Finley was not a "meaningful access" case, since it did not address the rule enunciated in Bounds v. Smith, and since it did not involve the death penalty. Petitioners appealed the decision of the Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court granted Certiorari to review the case.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Gerald T. Zerkin argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Jonathan D. Sasser and Martha A. Geer.
Robert Q. Harris, Assistant Attorney General of Virginia, argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Mary Sue Terry, Attorney General; Lane Kneedler, Chief Deputy Attorney General; Stephen D. Rosenthal, Deputy Attorney General; and Francis S. Ferguson, Assistant Attorney General.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union, et al., by Elizabeth Alexander, Alvin J. Bronstein, Steven R. Shapiro, and John A. Powell; for the Maryland State Bar Association, et al., by John H. Blume; and for the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, et al., by Ephraim Margolin and Steven M. Pesner Robert D. Raven, Ronald J. Tabak, George H. Kendall, and Clifford D. Stromberg filed a brief for the American Bar Association as amicus curiae.

"In Finley we ruled that neither the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment nor the equal protection guarantee of 'meaningful access' required the State to appoint counsel for indigent prisoners seeking state postconviction relief. The Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution assure the right of an indigent defendant to counsel at the trial stage of a criminal proceeding... and an indigent defendant is similarly entitled as a matter of right to counsel for an initial appeal from the judgment and sentence of the trial court... But we held in Ross v. Moffitt... that the right to counsel at these earlier stages of a criminal procedure did not carry over to a discretionary appeal provided by North Carolina law from the intermediate appellate court to the Supreme Court of North Carolina. We contrasted the trial stage of a criminal proceeding, where the State by presenting witnesses and arguing to a jury attempts to strip from the defendant the presumption of innocence and convict him of a crime, with the appellate stage of such a proceeding, where the defendant needs an attorney not as a shield to protect him against being 'haled into court' by the State and stripped of his presumption of innocence, but rather as a sword to upset the prior determination of guilt...

There is no inconsistency whatever between the holding of Bounds and the holding in Finley; the holding of neither case squarely decides the question presented in this case. For the reasons previously stated in this opinion, we now hold that Finley applies to those inmates under sentence of death as well as to other inmates, and that holding necessarily imposes limits on Bounds.

Petitioners and respondents disagree as to the practices currently in effect in Virginia state prisons with respect to death row prisoners. Respondents contend that these prisoners are denied adequate and timely access to a law library during the final weeks before the date set for their execution. If respondents are correct, the District Court on remand may remedy this situation without any need to enlarge the holding of Bounds."

Held: The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.

Justice Vote: 4 Pro vs. 5 Con

  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O’Connor, S., Con (Joined concurring opinion, joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging affirmance; the United States Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.