The opinion of the court was delivered by: WEBER
This is a civil rights action brought in this court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 28 U.S.C. § 1343. The plaintiffs in this action are inmates in a State Correctional Institution. In their complaint the plaintiffs allege that the defendants, state prison officials, have violated and continue to violate the plaintiffs' constitutional rights under the First, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.
As a remedy for these alleged constitutional violations the plaintiffs demand wide-ranging injunctive relief and monetary damages.
On October 14, 1977, the plaintiffs were granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis and this matter was assigned to the United States Magistrate for all further proceedings. Extensive trial proceedings have been conducted in this case, all under the supervision of the Magistrate.
Recently, however, a dispute has arisen between two intervenors in this action-The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the United States Marshal's Service. This dispute centers around the costs associated with the transportation of state prisoners to court appearances. Because this dispute may have a direct impact on all prisoner civil rights cases brought in this district we felt that the court, rather than the Magistrate, should address it in the first instance. Accordingly we ordered this case assigned to the court for determination of this issue alone.
Historically in this district the costs of transporting state prisoners to federal court have been allocated in the following manner: The state, at its own expense, would transport the prisoner from the institution currently holding him to the jail nearest the Federal Courthouse. The state would then notify the Marshal's Service that the prisoner was available for court appearances. It was then the responsibility of the Marshal to transport the prisoner to the United States Courthouse; hold him while at the Courthouse; and return him to the state authorities when his presence was no longer required in federal court.
That spirit of cooperation ended abruptly, however, in October of 1981 when the United States Marshal's Service intervened in this action. Arguing that it could no longer undertake the responsibility of transporting state prisoners, the Marshal's Service asked this court to direct the Commonwealth to assume all of the costs of transporting prisoners in civil rights cases. The Commonwealth has responded by also intervening in this action. The Commonwealth requests that we refuse to issue any writs of habeas corpus ad testificandum which require the state to bear the entire cost of transporting state prisoners to federal court for court appearances.
The motions presented by the intervenors raise the same fundamental question: namely, in civil rights cases how should the costs of transporting indigent state prisoners and their prisoner witnesses to federal court be allocated? The intervenors have thoroughly briefed and argued this issue. Accordingly, this matter is now ripe for our resolution.
In discussing the allocation of these costs we feel that a few observations are appropriate at the outset. While the issue presented by these intervenors is rather narrow, it is symptomatic of a widespread administrative problem in the federal court system. In the past decade federal courts have experienced a dramatic increase in prisoner civil rights case filings.
These prisoner civil rights cases create unique and significant challenges for federal district courts; almost invariably the plaintiffs in these actions seek, and are granted, leave to proceed in forma pauperis. As a result the costs associated with much of this litigation must be borne by the United States. These cases necessarily impose substantial burdens on the judicial system. These burdens are further exacerbated, however, because the vast majority of these cases deal with the civil rights petitions of state prisoners.
Moreover, we recognize that the judicial resources available to assist the federal courts in processing prisoners' civil rights complaints are quite limited. Inevitably, as the costs associated with this litigation become greater, there is an increasing reluctance by governmental agencies to assume responsibility for providing services necessary to administer justice efficiently. The instant case is a perfect illustration of this phenomenon. In this case as the costs of transporting a number of state prisoners to federal court increased both the Commonwealth and the Marshal's Service became reluctant to provide such service voluntarily.
We must be alert to the need to reduce these administrative costs while maintaining the highest standards of fairness and impartiality for all litigants. The courts can reduce the costs of this litigation in a number of ways. For example by carefully screening prisoner civil rights complaints we can eliminate those which are clearly frivolous without requiring the filing of an answer. Requiring an amendment or a more specific statement of the claim may serve to eliminate or narrow issues. The appointment of counsel who volunteer to accept such assignments may aid in clarifying the usual vague and general pro-se pleadings. It may be found that a prisoner's complaint does not raise any issues of fact, and may be susceptible to resolution through motions for summary judgment. Such motions should be encouraged whenever appropriate. There will remain, of course, a number of prisoner civil rights cases that must proceed to trial. In such cases frequently questions will arise regarding the demands of prisoner-plaintiffs to be present to testify at trial and to summon witnesses in their behalf. A prisoner has a fundamental interest in access to the judicial process. Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483, 89 S. Ct. 747, 21 L. Ed. 2d 718 (1969). However this fundamental interest does not confer on prisoners an absolute right to be present at the trial of civil rights actions. Moeck v. Zajackowski, 541 F.2d 177 (7th Cir. 1976); McKinney v. Boyle, 447 F.2d 1091 (9th Cir. 1971).
Rather, consideration of a prisoner's demand to testify in a civil rights action involves a delicate balancing of the interests of both the prisoner and the state. See, Jerry v. Francisco, 632 F.2d 252 (3d Cir. 1980); Moeck v. Zajackowski, supra. Frequently a prisoner-plaintiff in a civil rights action may have a very real interest in appearing to testify on his own behalf. In the absence of his testimony, the plaintiff's case may be severely prejudiced. Yet we recognize that the state also has a very important interest in insuring that the confinement of its prisoners continues. Finally, as this dispute demonstrates, the costs for the state of transporting a prisoner to court are significant.
Therefore, in striking this balance the court should consider, not only the interests of the parties, but also the possibility that less burdensome methods exist for obtaining the prisoner's testimony. In some instances the testimony of a prisoner may properly be obtained through depositions. In other cases the court may choose to stay proceedings on a prisoner-plaintiff's claim pending the release of the prisoner from incarceration. See, Ball v. Woods, 402 F. Supp. 803 (N.D.Ala.1975). Another option would be for the court to conduct some hearings at the correctional institution itself. In certain cases these procedures could eliminate many of the costs associated with transporting state prisoners to court appearances. However, prisoner civil rights actions serve an important purpose as a vehicle for the vindication of basic human rights. Therefore application of these various alternatives must be done with a sensitivity for the rights of the prisoner-plaintiff. We are confident that these measures can be employed in some cases without any prejudice to the rights of any litigant.
The careful management of prisoner civil rights cases can reduce the problems confronting us in this case. However in some instances, it will still be necessary to transport state prisoners to the federal courthouse in connection with civil rights proceedings. In such instances the question raised by these intervenors regarding allocation of transportation costs remains a very real issue. It is necessary therefore that we address this issue.
In this case we believe that this court has the power to order either the Commonwealth or the Marshal Service to bear the entire cost of transporting these prisoners. When the testimony of a prisoner is needed at trial his presence in the courtroom can be compelled through a writ of habeas corpus ad testificandum. The authority of a court to issue such a writ compelling attendance by prisoners at trial was clearly recognized at common law. 3 W. Blackstone Commentaries, 129. In this country the authority of federal courts to use the writ of habeas corpus ad testificandum to compel the presence of state prisoners at trial has long been accepted. See, Ex Parte Dorr, 44 U.S. (3 How.) 103, ...