The Rhode Island Supreme Court has thrown out an old law that says anyone serving a life sentence has no civil rights.
The 1909 law said such people have a “Civil Death,” which meant they were considered dead “with respect to property rights, the bond of matrimony and other civil rights.”
The state court ruled 4-1 that the archaic law was unconstitutional.
“Today’s decision from the court affirms the basic principle of our judicial system that the doors to justice shall remain open to all,” plaintiffs attorney Sonja Deyoe said in a statement.
Plaintiffs Cody-Allen Zab and Jose Rivera filed a lawsuit claiming that they suffered injuries while incarcerated, due to the Department of Corrections negligence, The Associated Press reported March 2.
A Superior Court judge concluded that the Civil Death statute barred the plaintiffs’ claims; they appealed to the high court, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island.
“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,” said the majority opinion written by Justice Erin Lynch-Prata.
The DOC maintained that the Civil Death law was constitutional and that it furthered the goals of punishment and deterrence.
Another legal case, Austin v. Medicis, states: “Civil Death is a legal status with roots in ancient Greece and English common law. In ancient Greece, those criminals ‘pronounced infamous’ were unable to appear in court or vote in the assembly, to make public speeches, or serve in the army….”
Civil Death applies only “when it is clear…beyond all dispute, that the criminal is no longer fit to live upon the earth, but is to be exterminated as a monster and a bane to human society,” commented the late legal scholar Blackstone.
In 1968 the California Legislature loosened restrictions on prisoner rights and abolished Civil Death for prisoners serving life sentences. This led to the 1974 landmark case, Wolff v. McDonnell, which gave prisoners due process rights in a disciplinary hearing.
The California Legislature repealed the rest of the “ancient Civil Death provision” in 1975 and enacted the Inmates’ Bill of Rights, signed into law by then Gov. Jerry Brown.