- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) - From his cell at the U.S. Penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, Antoine Bruce has had plenty of time to file - or attempt to file - 19 lawsuits and appeals that challenge prison conditions or claim civil rights violations.

What he doesn’t have is money to pay for all those court filing fees.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday considered how much Bruce and thousands of other indigent inmates should have to pay from their skimpy prison bank accounts for the cost of bringing multiple cases that some consider frivolous.

At issue is a 1996 federal statute that requires prisoners to make monthly installment payments of at least 20 percent of their prison income until the court fee is eventually paid in full. The goal was to discourage inmates from clogging courts with too many cases, but not erect a barrier to claims that may have merit.

But the law isn’t clear on how the payment applies to more than one case. Is it 20 percent for each case? Or is fee collection capped at 20 percent, regardless of how many cases an inmate has filed?

If the government is right, then a prisoner who files five lawsuits can have his bank account drawn down to practically nothing each month. Federal inmates earn as little as 23 cents or as much as $1.15 an hour from prison jobs. Court filing fees are $400 for federal cases.

Lower courts are divided on the issue, and the justices hearing arguments in Bruce’s case seemed to think the law was not written clearly.

Chief Justice John Roberts told Justice Department lawyer Nicole Saharsky that the government’s position defending the case-by-case approach seemed too harsh. He pointed out that prisoners use their meager income to make family phone calls, buy stamps for letters or buy books.

“And you’re going to take the last, you know, whatever, so that someone who’s in there for 20 years can’t even buy a book?”

Saharsky said the law wouldn’t be effective in deterring frivolous suits if prisoners can file as many cases as they want, but only have a maximum of 20 percent a month taken from bank accounts.

“Congress wanted inmates who were filing more lawsuits to pay more,” she said.

That made sense to Justice Antonin Scalia, who said the law would be ineffective if it didn’t apply to every case. He said it’s a prisoner’s “own fault if they keep filing baseless lawsuits.”

Saharsky noted that the dispute affects just a tiny percentage of federal inmates. Federal data shows that only 60 inmates out of more than 200,000 are paying for five or more cases, while 944 inmates are paying fees on a single case.

Arguing for Bruce, attorney Anthony Shelley said there are other deterrents, such as a “three strikes” law that prevents prisoners from filing new lawsuits without paying the entire fee after three cases have been dismissed as frivolous. He also said the numbers can be misleading because prisoners who file a single case face new fees every time they appeal, which can sometimes leave them with five or more separate charges.

Some of Bruce’s lawsuits have already been dismissed as frivolous, malicious or failing to state a claim. Several of those courts have ruled that Bruce now falls under the three strikes law. His lawyer said only 12 lawsuits currently have filing fees due.

A brief filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other prisoner advocates says holding prisoners to a lower financial burden is consistent with the country’s historic commitment to giving everyone access to the courts. Twenty states have sided with the federal government, noting that the vast majority of the nation’s more than 1.5 million inmates are in state prisons. The states say prisoners should bear “a marginal cost” for each lawsuit filed.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that Bruce, who was convicted in 2004, may never pay all the fees he owes because he’ll be released from prison at some point. Bruce is serving a 15-year sentence for armed kidnapping and assault and is set for release on June 11, 2018.

A decision is expected by the end of June.

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