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Court Makes It Easier To Sue Officials

The Supreme Court Monday made it significantly easier for some people to obtain jury trials against government officials accused of violating their rights.

The justices, with a 5-4 vote in a case brought by a prison inmate, ruled that lawsuits against prison officials cannot be dismissed before trial just because the plaintiff fails to produce "clear and convincing" evidence that the action in question was sparked by an unlawful motive.

The decision breathed new vitality into a District of Columbia inmate's lawsuit accusing a prison official of retaliating against him because he exercised his free-speech rights.

Leonard Rollon Crawford-El, serving a life sentence for murder, contends that Patricia Britton withheld boxes containing his legal papers and personal items while he was being moved to a federal prison.

A federal trial judge threw out Crawford-El's lawsuit. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated it but made it significantly harder for him to overcome the Britton's immunity claim.

The appeals court said Crawford-El would have to show "clear and convincing" evidence of Britton's retaliatory motive to avoid quick dismissal of his case even before any pretrial exchange of evidence between the two sides.

The clear-and-convincing evidence standard is much more difficult to meet than the usual preponderance-of-evidence standard.

Monday's decision said the appeals court was wrong in imposing such a hard-to-meet standard of proof.

Writing for the court's five-member majority, Justice John Paul Stevens acknowledged that the appeals court was trying to protect prison officials from frivolous lawsuits. But he noted that the standard also would apply to any person who sues government officials, state or local, for monetary damages.

He was joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas dissented.

Stevens wrote for the court today that federal trial judges have ample authority to deal with lawsuits that have no merit. If they need more, he said, it is for Congress not the Supreme Court to provide it.

Also from the Supreme Court Monday:

  • The Court agreed to decide what kind of information police must give people about recovering property seized from them during a search.

    The court said it will hear a California city's argument that its police did not violate a couple's rights by failing to tell them how to get a court order for the return of their property.

    The case involves the search of Lawrence and Clara Perkins' home by police in West Covina, California, in May 1993. The couple had rented a room to a man linked to a shooting death elsewhere in the town.

    Among the items seized from the house was $2,469 in cash that belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Perkins.

    li>Justices rejected a Texas newspaper's appeal aimed at gaining access to court records of a congressman's 1987 divorce.

    The justices, without comment, let stand rulings that said federal courts should not second-guess a state trial judge's decision to seal those records.

    The Monitor, of McAllen, Texas, sought access to Rep. Ruben Hinojosa's divorce case file when he first ran for Congress from the Rio Grande Valley in 1996. But the paper discovered the records had been sealed by Judge Fernando Mancias in 1987.

  • The Court also backed out of deciding whether police officers who do not have a court warrant can arrest someone over a minor crime for which the punishment is a fine.

    The court dismissed as "improvidently granted" the Illinois case, which asked whether such tactics violate the Constitution's ban on unreasonable arrests.