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Eye On Boise

Federal judge steps down from prison lawsuit

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill has agreed to step down from the lawsuit over conditions at a violence-ridding Idaho private prison at the request of the lockup's operator, Corrections Corp. of America, the Associated Press reports. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Federal judge steps down from Idaho prison lawsuit
By REBECCA BOONE, Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge has agreed to step down from a potential class-action lawsuit over conditions at an Idaho prison at the request of its operator, Corrections Corp. of America.

Chief U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill has been handling the lawsuit brought by inmates at the Idaho Correctional Center. He announced Tuesday that he was recusing himself after CCA attorneys claimed his staff improperly approached an ACLU attorney about taking the case.

Winmill stressed that there was no improper conduct, and the staffer that contacted the attorney was simply doing her job as a pro bono coordinator — a court worker who finds attorneys to take cases for no charge. But he said he wouldn't risk even the suggestion of impropriety, and so would step down.

The Idaho inmates claim the Boise-area prison is so violent that it's called "Gladiator School" and that the guards use inmate-on-inmate violence as a management tool and then deny injured inmates adequate medical care to cover up the violence. Nashville, Tenn.-based CCA says prisoner safety is its top priority and that it works closely with Idaho officials to meet standards. The company manages about 75,000 inmates at 64 facilities in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

The case originally started as a lawsuit brought by inmate Marlin Riggs, who couldn't afford an attorney and asked the court to appoint one. ACLU attorney Stephen Pevar agreed to take the case at no charge after he researched it and determined it could qualify for class-action status.

In a court document, Pevar said he rejects at least 200 cases for every one he accepts and that he pursues primarily class-action cases "because they are the best vehicles for achieving structural and systemic reform and constitutional compliance, the primary goal of the ACLU."

Pevar said he only told the court's pro bono coordinator about the issue of class certification to explain to her why he would need several weeks before he could decide whether to take the case. That's exactly the type of communication that should occur between a pro bono coordinator and attorneys, he said.

In the months since the lawsuit was filed, CCA attorneys have asked that the lawsuit be split into two cases: Riggs' claim and the portion of the case that could become a class-action suit. Recently, the ACLU attorneys agreed that such a split could occur, and they asked that Winmill continue to handle both cases.

CCA attorneys, however, contend that amounts to "judge shopping." They say it all gives the appearance that Pevar only took on the Riggs case so he could have a class-action lawsuit before Winmill.

Winmill said it was "proper and laudatory" for court staffers to approach attorneys about representing people who can't afford lawyers.

"Such efforts are highly appropriate as a means of providing equal access to justice and promoting due process of law," he said. "On the other hand, it is improper for the court or its staff to facilitate or encourage litigation intended to seek or obtain broader societal and institutional changes through class actions or similar devices."

While Winmill said he was convinced that didn't happen in this case, he was concerned that there exists the appearance of impropriety in the case. That alone requires him to step down, he said.

But he didn't leave the case without admonishing the attorneys to straighten up.

"Finally, just as I take my own ethical responsibilities seriously, I expect counsel to do likewise," Winmill said. "I have become concerned by the tenor and tone of the filings in this case. After more than 23 years on the bench, I have learned that personal attacks on opposing counsel and an inability to agree on even the most minor points do not advance the cause of either side, and instead serve only to damage counsel's credibility."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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