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Law School Case Brief

Wolff v. McDonnell - 418 U.S. 539, 94 S. Ct. 2963 (1974)


Written notice of the charges must be given to the disciplinary-action defendant inmate in order to inform him of the charges and to enable him to marshal the facts and prepare a defense. At least a brief period of time after the notice, no less than 24 hours, should be allowed to the inmate to prepare for the appearance before the adjustment committee. There also must be a written statement by the factfinders as to the evidence relied on and reasons for the disciplinary action.


Robert O. McDonnell, on behalf of himself and other inmates at a Nebraska prison, filed a complaint for damages and injunctive relief under 42 U. S. C. § 1983, in which he alleged that disciplinary proceedings at the prison violated due process; that the inmate legal assistance program did not meet constitutional standards; and that the regulations governing inmates' mail were unconstitutionally restrictive. After an evidentiary hearing, the District Court granted partial relief. Though rejecting McDonnell's procedural due process claim, the court held that the prison's policy of inspecting all attorney-prisoner mail was improper but that restrictions on inmate legal assistance were not constitutionally defective. The Court of Appeals reversed with respect to the due process claim, holding that the procedural requirements outlined in the intervening decisions in Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471, and Gagnon v. Scarpelli, 411 U.S. 778, should be generally followed in prison disciplinary hearings, but leaving the specific requirements (including the circumstances in which counsel might be required) to be determined by the District Court on remand. The Court of Appeals further held that Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, forbade restoration of good-time credits in a § 1983 suit but ordered expunged from prison records misconduct determinations reached in proceedings that had not comported with due process.

The Court of Appeals generally affirmed the District Court's judgment respecting correspondence with attorneys, but added some additional prescriptions and ordered further proceedings to determine whether the State was meeting its burden under Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483, to provide legal assistance to prisoners, a duty found to extend to civil rights cases as well as habeas corpus proceedings.


Was the inmates' interest in prison disciplinary procedures protected by the Fourteenth Amendment?




On certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed that part of the appellate judgment, finding that the disciplinary procedures violated due process. The Court held that the inmates' interest in disciplinary procedures was protected by the Fourteenth Amendment because the right to good time and its deprivation as a sanction was provided by state statute. Due process required provision of advance written notice of the claimed violation, a written statement of the evidence relied upon, and the reasons for the disciplinary action. The inmate had to be allowed to call witnesses and present evidence when to do so would not be unduly hazardous to institutional safety or goals. Cross-examination and counsel were not constitutionally required. The prison's acceptance of a rule whereby the inmate was present when mail from attorneys was inspected was all that the constitution required. Finally, the Court agreed with the appellate court that the capacity of the inmate legal adviser had to be assessed in light of the demand for assistance in civil rights actions as well as in habeas corpus proceedings because both actions served to protect basic constitutional rights.

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