By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
In 1982, Kenneth Ashelman, an inmate at the Mohave County Jail in Kingman, sued his jailers for $1.7 million, claiming his constitutional rights had been violated because, among other things, he had been deprived of proper clothing and bedding, access to the courts, freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
Later, Ashelman amended the case to include another alleged constitutional violation: He'd been deprived of three kosher meals a day while in jail.
The 13-year-old lawsuit is still pending at U.S. District Court in Phoenix.
From the beginning, inmate Ashelman bombarded the court with stacks of pleadings. In 1983, a magistrate assigned to the case wrote, "It has been difficult to ascertain from the voluminous documents filed by the plaintiff exactly what his claims are."
Two years after the case was filed, Judge Carl Muecke blasted Ashelman for filing "repetitive and conclusory" motions. But then the judge also lambasted Mohave County for not answering those motions.
By then, Ashelman had been sentenced to 28 years for kidnaping and sexually assaulting a Tucson real estate agent at knifepoint. After spending several months in the Kingman jail, Ashelman was transferred to the state prison in Florence.
From his new home, Ashelman continued filing court pleadings, all of which had to be answered by the Mohave County Attorney's Office.
In 1985, the three-year-old Ashelman case was reassigned to Judge Roger Strand.
Judge Strand denied Ashelman's motion for summary judgment, but he appointed two different lawyers to help the prisoner with his case. Each lawyer quit the case, citing differences of opinion with Ashelman.
The inmate continued filing his pleadings.
In late 1994, the 12-year-old case was reassigned to a third federal judge, the newly appointed Roslyn Silver. As the judge with the least seniority on Arizona's federal bench, Silver was assigned many prisoner lawsuits that had dragged on for years on other judges' dockets.
Court records show that Silver is tackling the backlog of uninteresting cases she inherited, moving them along.
She scooped up the Ashelman case, and promptly dismissed part of it on technical grounds, at the request of Mohave County.
But several issues in this ancient case have to be resolved in an as-yet-unscheduled upcoming trial.
Among those burning issues: whether Kenneth Ashelman was deprived of his constitutional rights 13 years ago because he was provided inadequate bedding, and because he was not served three kosher meals a day by the administrators of the Mohave County Jail.
The Ashelman case is one of dozens of prisoner cases that have been languishing for more than three years in Phoenix federal courts. And actually, Judge Strand appears to be fairly efficient at moving such cases, at least in comparison to other Arizona federal judges.
His docket carries six inmate lawsuits that are three years old--or older.
Troubled by backlogs in federal court, Congress in 1990 passed the Civil Justice Reform Act. The law permitted "advisory groups" of local lawyers, citizens and academics to have some say in how the federal courts are managed.
The advisory group for the Arizona District was headed by Phoenix lawyer Richard Segal. In 1993, Segal's group persuaded the Arizona District to try a new system for handling civil cases--Differentiated Case Management, or DCM.
The system, which started in December 1993, works this way: When civil lawsuits are filed, they are put on different time tracks. Prisoner cases are on an "expedited" track that is expected to move the cases efficiently but rapidly through the courts. More complicated cases are put on slower tracks.
So far, the eight judges in the Phoenix court are cooperating with the new system. But if they choose not to cooperate, Segal admits, "There is very little you can do about it." The system is voluntary.
Segal says federal court administrators in Washington, D.C., have concluded it's too soon to determine if the new system works in Arizona.
But it seems to be helping.
Although DCM cannot effect the backlog of prisoner cases, newly filed cases seem to be moving through the federal court more rapidly. Of the 1,303 prisoner filings in 1994, roughly half were dismissed by judges in less than a year.
It is clear, though, that DCM is not a final solution to the prisoner-lawsuit problem.
Six years ago, Larry Howard, an inmate at the state prison in Florence, sued state corrections director Sam Lewis and 32 prison officials in federal court in Phoenix. Howard claimed numerous living conditions in Florence violated his constitutional rights. He noted, among other things, that "just recently, several plaintiffs found human feces in there [sic] food, and when complaints were made, above mentioned defendants found nothing."
The case was assigned to Judge Roger Strand.
In September 1990, Howard filed a motion, asking the judge to decide the suit in his favor.
A week later, the state filed papers opposing Howard's motion and asked the judge to sanction Howard, because he had violated the judge's instructions on pursuing the case.
Two weeks later, Howard responded to the state's request for sanctions.
Four and one-half years later, Judge Strand has not ruled on the motions. That is because the Howard case has been combined with a 1988 lawsuit filed by prisoner Robert Enger, who said his constitutional rights were violated by unsanitary conditions at the Florence prison.