Black humor dep’t

A criminal defendant has a right to defend himself in court, but not to have access to a law library to enable him to do so. Hilarious, isn’t it?

Who says the Supreme Court doesn’t have a sense of humor?


A reader thinks the Congress, not the Court, is to blame:

I’m not sure if you read the opinion regarding a state prisoner’s

access to a law library, but the post you link to is a flatly

incorrect statement of what the Supreme Court held, and the case does

not imply that “the Supreme Court believes that criminal defendants

representing themselves in court are capable of doing so without

access to a law library.”

As you may know, in 1996 Congress passed, and President Clinton

signed, a bill that sharply curtailed the use of the writ of habeas

corpus by state prisoners. Under its terms, a federal court can’t

grant the writ just because a prisoner’s constitutional rights have

been violated. Instead, the prisoner has to show that the state

court’s decision was not just wrong, but “was contrary to, or involved

an unreasonable application, of clearly established federal law, as

determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” So even though

it was apparently clear under Ninth Circuit precedent that a criminal

pro se defendant is constitutionally required to have access to a law

library, the fact remains that the Supreme Court hasn’t said so.

I think it’s a horrible restriction of the Great Writ, and there’s a

case (also in the Ninth Circuit) now which is considering whether the

restriction is even constitutional. But that wasn’t the issue in this

case. The Supreme Court’s decision seems correct to me (and, clearly,

to the Court’s most liberal, defendant-friendly members). The result

is bad, but the blame should fall on Congress.

This is the sort of case that makes me glad I didn’t go to law school. But it appears that I and my librarian friend have done the Court an injustice. It’s pretty clear that the Patriot Act, however bad it may be, is far from the most outrangeous of the many attacks on the basic principles of liberty under law.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: