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Most of the lawsuits filed by state prisoners name the Arizona Department of Corrections as a defendant. The Arizona Attorney General's Office must provide the defense. The cost of representing the DOC in these suits: about $1.25 million annually.
The federal court has attempted to deal with the deluge of prisoner lawsuits through a "pro se" office, so named because most prisoners file suit pro se--that is, without the assistance of an attorney. That office sets taxpayers back $348,000 per year in staff salaries alone. The pro se office flags frivolous prisoner lawsuits and recommends that judges dismiss them immediately. But this screening only weeds out about 25 percent of incoming prisoner filings.
The reason: pro se law clerks can only suggest judges dismiss cases that fit the Supreme Court's definition of "frivolous," which is "lacking an arguable basis in law or facts," says James McKay, the lead pro se law clerk in Phoenix.
This means that inmate D. Wayne Farmer's 1992 lawsuit alleging, among other things, prisoners were intentionally served spoiled food by guards, including less-than-fresh fried eggs in egg-salad sandwiches, is not legally frivolous. It is, instead, arguable. It took nearly a year before Judge Roger Strand dismissed the case, noting that an "isolated incident of spoiled food . . . does not rise to the level of a constitutional violation."
Saddled with the sixth heaviest caseload in the 94 federal judicial districts, the eight federal judges in Phoenix are among the busiest in the United States. Saying that they are compelled to adjudicate criminal cases first, judges sometimes put civil cases, especially tedious prisoner cases, on the back burner, creating a backlog.
The attorneys who defend prisoner cases are restrained when asked whether federal judges are not, in fact, a significant part of the prisoner-lawsuit problem. Those attorneys usually speak carefully. They must, after all, continue to appear before federal judges.
"Nobody likes to go to work in the morning hoping he can handle a completely idiotic case," Woods says in explaining why judges don't like to deal with prisoner lawsuits. Even Woods, however, says some prisoner cases just "sit and sit and sit," that attorneys have to "really work on judges to move things along."
"Prisoner civil rights cases are at the bottom of the legal food chain," assistant attorney general Rob Carey says. "Federal judges are supposedly the best of the best. The best trained, the brightest, the most experienced, the most educated. They want to spend their time on things that matter to them."
"Things move very slowly in federal court," says Dale Robinson, a lawyer who defends prisoner actions, including a case in which a prisoner sued Mesa police for providing him with his prescription heart medicine shortly after his arrest. It took six years before the case was settled out of court.
"Cases will just sit sometimes. We wait and wait for the federal court to rule," says Robinson. "It's very frustrating."
"We are a very busy court," responds Robert Broomfield, chief justice of the Arizona District. "We are constantly searching for ways to better and more fairly process all cases."
When asked whether the numbers of prisoner filings are a problem for the federal courts, Broomfield answers: "I don't want to say anything is a problem, in the sense that we're here to do the business of the people. And if people file lawsuits, we're here to resolve those lawsuits."
Federal judges say some prisoner lawsuits move slowly because the judges are obligated to follow Supreme Court instructions to "liberally construe" the pleadings of pro se litigants. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees the Arizona District, also instructs judges to tell prisoners about flawed court pleadings. Only when a prisoner fails to fix such a technical defect can a judge dismiss the inmate's case.
Superior Court judges do not take prisoner lawsuits as seriously. Which is one reason prisoners mostly file in federal, not state, court.
"In most instances, prisoners were playing games with the guards. The lawsuits gave them something to do. Also, they wanted to get out of prison, and going to court got them out of prison," former Superior Court judge Stanley Goodfarb says. "Most judges dislike prisoner lawsuits. They are a lot of work. The prisoners send every document they can, and it's difficult to handle because prisoners aren't lawyers. You get tons of paper that fill the file, most of which is unnecessary.
"As far as I was concerned as a civil judge, these lawsuits were more of a nuisance than a problem."
Maricopa County judges are far busier than federal judges, with twice the caseload. They don't like their courtrooms cluttered with meritless cases.
In dismissing a case in which several of the 5,000 inmates in the Maricopa County jails claimed Sheriff Joe Arpaio was depriving them of constitutional rights--their morning coffee--Judge Frank Galati noted that lawsuits cost inmates nothing, but cost the taxpayer plenty. He wrote: "Dismissal of this frivolous lawsuit at this early stage and on the court's own motion serves the interests of justice, an overburdened system and an overburdened taxpaying public."
Some federal judges seem all but oblivious to the latter two interests.