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Paul Eichwedel v. Chandler, 7th Cir No. 09-1031, 8/29/12

seventh circuit decision

Habeas – Procedural Default Defense: Waiver by State 

Procedural default (here, failure to perfect the appeal in state court, hence failure to exhaust the claim) is an affirmative defense which may be forfeited or waived by the State. The State expressly waived any failure-to-exhaust objection, hence the court proceeds to the merits.

Habeas – PLRA and Right to Access the Courts 

During the course of litigating an otherwise unrelated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim, Illinois prison inmate Eichwedel filed two motions for sanctions that the district court ruled were themselves “frivolous.” The claim nonetheless proceeded, and eventually settled (the terms are neither revealed here nor relevant to the present issue). Under Illinois law, an inmate who files a legal document deemed by a court to be “frivolous,” is subject to loss of prison “good conduct” credit, 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d). The Illinois DOC indeed sought, and obtained, administrative revocation of a total of six months of Eichwedel’s good conduct credit, based on the district court’s frivolous-filing rulings. (Wisconsin, of course, handles prison release time differently, but under its iteration of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, punishes inmates with lost good-time or delayed release, for filing malicious, etc., claims, §  807.15(2).) After losing in state court, Eichwedel filed a U.S.C. § 2254 petition, asserting that the statutory scheme under which he lost the credit is unconstitutional, as impairing the right to access to the courts. The Seventh Circuit rejects the claim:

The record before us establishes that the underlying action was resolved by settlement on terms favorable to Mr. Eichwedel. …

… He has failed to establish … that the State’s invocation of 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d) has interfered, or is interfering, in any way with his pursuit of any litigation. Because Mr. Eichwedel has failed to identify any “’nonfrivolous,’ ‘arguable’ underlying claim” that 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d) is preventing him from bringing, this argument fails. See Harbury, 536 U.S. at 415 (quoting Lewis, 518 U.S. at 353 & n.3).

In conclusion, we note that the statute at issue does more than vindicate the burden imposed on the judiciary by the filing of frivolous suits on motions in state or federal court. It provides prison officials with a tool to curb behavior that is inimical to rehabilitative efforts and to good order and discipline within the institution. Mr. Eichwedel has failed to establish that no fairminded jurist could conclude that the right of access to the courts, as it has been interpreted by the Supreme Court of the United States, prevents a state from punishing the behavior regulated by 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d). 41

Habeas – Loss of Prison Sentence Credit and Due Process

Illinois statutorily grants good-time credit to prison inmates, therefore they have a liberty interest that entitles them to minimal due process protection against the arbitrary loss of this credit.

… A revocation of good-conduct credits complies with due process if the inmate receives:

(1) advance written notice of the disciplinary charges; (2) an opportunity, when consistent with institutional safety and correctional goals, to call witnesses and present documentary evidence in his defense; and (3) a written statement by the factfinder of the evidence relied on and the reasons for the disciplinary action.

Superintendent, Massachusetts Corr. Inst., Walpole v. Hill, 472 U.S. 445, 454 (1985) (citing Wolff, 418 U.S. at 563-67). Due process also requires that “the findings of the prison disciplinary board [be] supported by some evidence in the record.” Id.

The “some evidence” standard of Hill is satisfied if “there is any evidence in the record that could support the conclusion reached by the disciplinary board.” Id. at 455-56. Stated differently, “[t]his standard is met if ‘there was some evidence from which the conclusion of the administrative tribunal could be deduced.’ ” Id. at 455 …

The issue, then, is whether “some” evidence supports violation of 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d) – and, because the court has severe doubts as to the elements of that statute, it tosses the ball to the state court:

Although we are required to apply state law as interpreted by the state courts, we have significant doubt as to whether 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d) means what the state trial court apparently concluded that it means. Because of the odd procedural route this case has taken and the intervening case law that supports what appears to be the plain wording of the statute, we hesitate to treat the state trial court’s opinion as a definitive statement of state law.59 When presented with similar situations, other federal courts, in the interest of comity, have elected to certify questions of law to the state court of last resort to determine what state law was on the date of the relevant state court opinion. …

In our view, certification presents the optimal method of assuring respect for the decision of the state courts as to the elements of the offense and of assuring that an issue which will recur frequently in both state and federal courts within Illinois, but which might not reach appellate courts with the same frequency, is decided definitively. …

Accordingly, in accordance with Illinois Supreme Court Rule 20 and Circuit Rule 52(a), we respectfully request that the Supreme Court of Illinois answer the following question, which may be determinative of this cause:

As of the date Mr. Eichwedel’s state court challenge to the revocation of his good-conduct credits became final, was the State required to establish, in order to revoke a prisoner’s good-conduct credit, either that the court making the finding of frivolousness had determined specifically that the filing satisfied one of the definitions of frivolousness in 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d) or that the court had otherwise made its intent to invoke 730 ILCS 5/3-6-3(d) known?

We invite reformulation of the question presented if necessary, and nothing in this certification should be read to limit the scope of inquiry to be undertaken by the Supreme Court of Illinois. Further proceedings in this court are stayed while this matter is under consideration by the Supreme Court of Illinois.

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