95 Law Libr. J. 491 (2003)
Does Lewis v. Casey Spell the End to Court-Ordered Improvement of Prison Law Libraries

handle is hein.journals/llj95 and id is 493 raw text is: Does Lewis v. Casey Spell the End to Court-Ordered
Improvement of Prison Law Libraries?*
Joesph L. Gerken**
The Supreme Court's decision in Lewis v. Casey raises the bar for advocates
seeking court-ordered improvements in prison law libraries. Whether it dooms
all such efforts to failure may well depend on the willingness of trial courts to
take into account the realities of prisoners'pro se litigation.
1 In Lewis v. Casey, the Supreme Court held that prisoners do not have an
abstract, freestanding right to a law library.' Hence, an inmate cannot support a
federal claim simply by showing that a prison law library is subpar in some the-
oretical sense.2 Rather, the inmate must go one step further and demonstrate that
the alleged shortcomings of the law library . . . hindered his efforts to pursue a
legal claim.3
2 As some commentators have noted, this actual injury requirement seems
to create a paradox in that the ability to litigate a denial of access claim is evi-
dence that the plaintiff has no denial of access claim!4
3 Does Lewis v. Casey spell the end of prisoners' efforts to obtain court-
ordered improvements to their law libraries? Certainly the actual injury require-
ment makes it significantly harder for potential plaintiffs to sustain any challenge
to the adequacy of law libraries. However, it may be possible to show actual injury,
at least in the most egregious cases of denial of law library services. A key factor
will be courts' willingness to take into account the realities of prison litigation. An
underlying premise of the following discussion is that there is a significant rela-
tionship between the outcome of prisoners' access to court cases and the extent to
which the deciding court acknowledges those realities. Decisions granting relief to
plaintiffs almost invariably are supported by an analysis of the practical realities of
prison litigation. Contrarily, decisions denying relief tend to disregard those realities.
4 In this regard, the Lewis decision represent, a critical departure in the ana-
lytical approach to access to court cases. Prior Supreme Court decisions, notably
* © Joseph L. Gerken, 2003.
** Senior Assistant Librarian, Charles B. Sears Law Library, State University of New York at Buffalo,
Buffalo, New York. The author wishes to acknowledge the courtesy and professionalism of the law
librarians of the New York State Department of Correctional Services whom he has encountered in
his labors.
1.  518 U.S. 343, 351 (1996).
2.  Id.
3.  Id.
4. Walters v. Edgar, 163 F.3d 430, 436 (7th Cir. 1998).

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