In recent years, the Supreme Court has continuously reiterated the importance of the right to marry, finding it to be a fundamental right protected by the Constitution. Activists across the nation have celebrated the Court's continued protection of this fundamental right as it has expanded the rights of same-sex couples. What has received somewhat less attention is how the Court's right to marry doctrine has affected a different segment of the population—prisoners. In the United States, there are currently 2.2 million people serving time in our nation's prisons or jails. For many of us, prisoners are people we would rather not think about. These are individuals who have violated the laws of our society. However, these individuals still have rights protected by the Constitution, and that we cannot ignore.
In a case involving facts that could be right out of the hit show Orange is the New Black, the Seventh Circuit recently confronted the question of how to define a prisoner's right to marry. In Riker v. Lemmon, the Seventh Circuit addressed the question of whether prisoners have a fundamental right to marry. The Seventh Circuit also reviewed the constitutionality of a prison regulation that prohibited a former employee of the prison from marrying a prisoner who was housed at the same facility where the former employee had worked. The Supreme Court has articulated a standard for reviewing a prisoner's claim that their constitutional rights have been violated. The test is a four-factor reasonableness test to determine whether there is a valid rational connection between the regulation and a legitimate government interest. The other factors to be considered are whether there are alternative means of exercising the right, what impact accommodating the right would have on the prison environment, and if there are easy alternatives to the regulation.
Courts should be cautious in determining whether there is a rational connection between the regulation and a legitimate government interest. It is important that courts do not substitute their own judgment regarding prison regulations for those of the prison administration without giving due course to the balance between protecting the prisoner's constitutional rights and the need to maintain a safe and secure prison environment. The Seventh Circuit's recent decision in Riker illustrates these principles. This Article argues that the Seventh Circuit erred by failing to acknowledge the prison's security justifications for preventing a former employee from marrying a prisoner. Instead of simply focusing on the first factor of the test, the court should have more fully analyzed the other factors. Although the court erred in its analysis, in the end it reached the correct conclusion. Here, an analysis of the other factors demonstrates that the regulation was unconstitutional because the prison could have transferred the prisoner to a different prison to alleviate any security-related concerns with de minimis impact on the prison environment.
Lauren B. Wright,
The Seventh Circuit Finds the Fundamental Right to Marry Includes the Right to Choose One's Spouse, Even in Prison,
Seventh Circuit Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.kentlaw.iit.edu/seventhcircuitreview/vol11/iss1/3