Muzzle follow-up: Rhode Island Supreme Court strikes down ‘civil death’ law

Peter Neronha

A Rhode Island law that was the subject of a 2021 GBH News Muzzle Award has been struck down by that state’s Supreme Court.

The Associated Press reports that Rhode Island’s “civil death” law, under which anyone serving a life sentence was regarded as dead with respect to having access to the justice system, “deprives those persons imprisoned at the ACI for life of their right to bring civil actions in our state courts.” (The ACI is the Adult Correctional Institutions.) The bizarre law stated:

Every person imprisoned in the adult correctional institutions for life shall, with respect to all rights of property, to the bond of matrimony and to all civil rights and relations of any nature whatsoever, be deemed to be dead in all respects, as if his or her natural death had taken place at the time of conviction.

Last July I awarded a New England Muzzle to Rhode Island’s attorney general, Peter Neronha, a Democrat, for his overzealous defense of a law that didn’t exist in any other state. Among other things, Neronha argued that life in prison — or, for that matter, the death penalty — are more severe punishments than civil death yet pose no constitutional issues.

In fact, as the Rhode Island ACLU pointed out, there are punishments that many would regard as worse than life in prison, or even death. As the ACLU’s state executive director, Steven Brown, explained, civil death means that “an inmate … serving a life sentence could be waterboarded, beaten mercilessly by guards, or held in a cell and denied all food and water, but have no access to our state courts to challenge these egregious violations of his constitutional rights.”

In a press release, the Rhode Island ACLU hailed Wednesday’s decision as “an important victory for the principle that the courts should be open to all for redress.”