Inmate Challenges to Parole Allowed

The Supreme Court (search) ruled 8-1 on Monday that two Ohio prison inmates may file federal civil rights complaints in an effort to get parole hearings denied them by the state.

The court rejected arguments by the state of Ohio, which said inmates William Dotson (search) and Rogerico Johnson are using the civil rights law to do just what the court prohibited in earlier cases — challenge the fact or duration of their confinement.

"The problem with Ohio's argument lies in its jump from a true premise ... to a faulty conclusion," Justice Stephen Breyer (search) wrote.

"Success for Dotson" on the civil rights claim "does not mean immediate release from confinement or a shorter stay in prison," Breyer wrote. "Success for Johnson means at most a new parole hearing at which Ohio parole authorities may, in their discretion, decline to shorten his prison term."

In a dissent, Justice Anthony Kennedy objected, saying, "Today's decision allows state prisoners raising parole challenges to circumvent the state courts." Eighteen states joined with Ohio in urging that the inmates not be allowed to proceed with their federal civil rights claims.

Dotson, who began serving a life term in 1981 for murder, is seeking an immediate parole hearing, challenging guidelines that said he must wait five more years. The guidelines applied in Dotson's case were adopted in 1998, long after he began serving his sentence.

Johnson, who began serving a 10- to 30-year sentence in 1992 for robbery, is seeking a new parole hearing, after he was found unsuitable for release under the 1998 guidelines.

The case is Wilkinson v. Dotson, 03-287.