What Conditions Allow Prisoners to Sue In Civil Court ?
Though a party may not be denied access to the courts merely because he is an inmate, there is no absolute right for an inmate to appear in court in a civil case. Armstrong v. Randle, 881 S.W.2d 53, 58 (Tex. App.-Texarkana 1994, writ denied); see also Brewer v. Taylor, 737 S.W.2d 421, 423 (Tex. App.-Dallas 1987, no writ).
In considering an inmate's right to appear, courts generally follow a balancing approach, weighing the preservation of the correctional system's integrity against the prisoner's right of access, with a goal of achieving a balance that is fundamentally fair. Brewer, 737 S.W.2d at 423.
Review is under an abuse of discretion standard. Id.
Courts consider a number of factors in determining this balance, including:
(1) the cost and inconvenience of transporting the inmate to court;
(2) the security risk and danger to the court and the public by allowing the inmate to attend court;
(3) whether the inmate's claims are substantial;
(4) whether a determination of the matter can reasonably be delayed until the inmate is released;
(5) whether the inmate can and will offer admissible, noncumulative testimony that cannot be offered effectively by deposition, telephone, or otherwise;
(6) whether the inmate's presence is important in judging his demeanor and credibility compared with that of other witnesses;
(7) whether the trial is to the court or to a jury; and
(8) the inmate's probability of success on the merits. Id.
Only where an inmate has been effectively barred from presenting his case has an appeals court been willing to find error in the denial of an inmate's request to personally appear. See Pruske v. Dempsey, 821 S.W.2d 687, 688-89 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 1991, no writ); Nichols v. Martin, 776 S.W.2d 621, 623 (Tex. App.-Tyler 1989, no writ).
A prisoner in Texas has a constitutional right of access to the courts, but only a qualified right to appear personally at a civil proceeding. In re M.M., 980 S.W.2d 699, 701 (Tex. App.--San Antonio 1998, no pet.); Pedraza, 960 S.W.2d at 342; Armstrong, 881 S.W.2d at 56.
In determining whether a personal appearance is warranted, "appellate courts have held that the trial court must balance, by considering various factors, the government's interest in protecting the integrity of the correctional system against the prisoner's right of access to the courts." Nance v. Nance, 904 S.W.2d 890, 892 (Tex. App.--Corpus Christi 1995, no writ).
Key factors include whether an inmate is represented by counsel or is pro se, and whether the inmate is a civil defendant rather than a plaintiff. See Armstrong, 881 S.W.2d at 57; In Pruske v. Dempsey, 821 S.W.2d 687, 689 (Tex. App.--San Antonio 1991, no writ); Nichols v. Martin, 776 S.W.2d 621, 623 (Tex. App.--Tyler 1989, no writ).
Armstrong noted that, in cases finding "error in the denial of an inmate's right to personally appear, the ruling was not based solely on the fact that the inmate was a [civil] defendant, but was based on additional reasons, viz., the inmate had no lawyer, was proceeding pro se, or was denied the right to communicate with his lawyer, all of which effectively barred his access to the courts." Armstrong, 881 S.W.2d at 57- 58.
We therefore consider whether the trial court abused its discretion in failing to bench warrant appellant to attend trial without first making a finding on his bench warrant request and considering other methods to provide him access to the court.
The right of a prisoner to have access to the court entails not so much his personal presence as the opportunity to present evidence or contradict the evidence of the opposing party:
Clearly all litigants who are forced to settle disputes through the judicial process have a fundamental right under the federal constitution to be heard at a meaningful time in a meaningful manner. Boddie v. Connecticut, 401 U.S. 371, 377-378, 91 S. Ct. 780, 785-86, 28 L. Ed. 2d 113 (1971).
The right to be heard includes the opportunity to introduce evidence, to cross-examine witnesses, to be heard on questions of law and to have judgment rendered only after trial. Nichols, 776 S.W.2d at 623.