GUAJARDO-PALMA v. MARTINSON (September 20, 2010)

Cesar Guajardo-Palma is a prisoner in a Wisconsin facility. He brought suit alleging that his constitutional rights were violated when prison employees opened nine pieces of his incoming mail outside of his presence. None of the mail was from his lawyer. One document was from the district court and was a matter of public record. The others were from federal and state agencies and, though not public documents, were not particularly sensitive. Judge Crabb (W.D. Wis.) dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim. Guajardo-Palma appeals.

In their opinion, Chief Judge Easterbrook and Judges Posner and Hamilton affirmed. The Court engaged in a lengthy analysis of the jurisprudence in this area, including such topics as the interception of a letter from a lawyer, the interception of a letter to a lawyer, whether the analysis is properly a First Amendment analysis or a right of access to the courts analysis (the "more straightforward" approach) or the right to a fair hearing, the Sixth Amendment issues that arise if the prisoner is a criminal defendant, the accommodation required between a prisoner's interest in confidentiality and the prison's interest in security, whether an unjustified interception of legal mail is a violation or simply a potential violation that requires a showing of hindrance, the appropriate remedy for a violation, and the fact that such a violation would be subject to a harmless error analysis. The Court then put its imprimatur on an approach described in Wolff -- the prison official should be allowed to open, in the prisoner's presence, mail that purports to be from the prisoner's lawyer to ensure that it is what it purports to be. Of course, the actual communications at issue in the case were not to or from a lawyer. The prisoner had not asserted any interference with his rights to pursue his litigation nor had he claimed to be intimidated. The Court concluded that the prison's practice of opening communications that are not sensitive and not likely to provide insights into a legal strategy is harmless and not a constitutional violation.