Wednesday, March 16, 2016

McNeal v. McNeal-Syndor

Opinion handed down September 8, 2015
While incarcerated at the Jefferson City correctional facility, John McNeal filed a notice of appeal directly to the Supreme Court of Missouri following the circuit court’s dismissal of his petition for dissolution of marriage.[1]  McNeal’s petition for dissolution of marriage was dismissed because he failed to appear in court because of his imprisonment.[2]   McNeal sought direct appeal to the Supreme Court of Missouri, asserting that two Missouri statutes prohibiting prisoners from attending civil proceedings were unconstitutional because they did not grant prisoners an unconditional right to litigate civil actions of which a prisoner was a party.[3]  McNeal argued that the statutes were simply implemented to deny prisoners access to the courts and violated the Missouri Constitution.[4]  The Supreme Court of Missouri denied direct transfer, noting the circuit court’s potential misinterpretation and misapplication of the statute did not raise a “real and substantial constitutional challenge” to the validity of the statute required for exclusive appellate jurisdiction.[5]  McNeal’s appeal was transferred to the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District for further proceedings.[6]

I.  Facts and Holding
        John McNeal filed a pro se petition for dissolution of marriage in the Circuit Court of Jackson County while he was an inmate at the Jefferson City correctional facility.[7]  Because he was incarcerated, McNeal was unable to appear in person and the circuit court entered an order dismissing the dissolution petition.[8]  In response to the dismissal, McNeal filed a notice of appeal directly with the Supreme Court of Missouri, alleging exclusive jurisdiction due to the unconstitutionality of two Missouri statutes,[9] which prohibit prisoners from physically attending civil proceedings when provided significant alternatives to personal presence.[10]  The Supreme Court of Missouri issued an order requiring McNeal to show that the appeal should not be dismissed for lack of final judgment.[11]  The circuit court subsequently entered an amended judgment of dismissal.[12]  The brief circuit court judgment noted McNeal’s failure to appear and stated that the petition was dismissed after having “reviewed the file” and “being otherwise fully informed in the premises.”[13]  However, four months before the circuit court judgment, McNeal’s writ of habeas corpus ad testificandum, requesting his statutorily provided alternative appearance options, was denied by the Jackson County Circuit Court.[14]  The Supreme Court of Missouri denied McNeal’s direct appeal and transferred the appeal to the Missouri Court of Appeals, noting that the court did not have exclusive appellate jurisdiction, because the statutory challenge was to the failure to apply the statutory requirements, which did not amount to a real and substantial constitutional challenge to the validity of the statute.[15] 
II.  Legal Background
The Supreme Court of Missouri has exclusive appellate jurisdiction in cases involving the validity of all Missouri statutes.[16]  All other cases are within the general jurisdiction of the court of appeals.[17]  Further, the mere presentation of a constitutional issue regarding a statute is not sufficient for direct appeal to the Supreme Court of Missouri.[18]  Instead, the statute itself must violate the constitution either facially or as applied, causing a “real and substantial” issue to qualify for direct appeal to the state supreme court.[19]  Lack of jurisdiction, however, is not grounds for dismissal; instead, the case is simply transferred to the appropriate appellate court with jurisdiction.[20] 
        Specifically, Missouri statutes prohibiting the physical presence of inmates at their own civil proceedings have been upheld as constitutional because the statutes provide alternatives to personal presence and satisfy the established standard for prisoner’s access to courts.[21]  In Call v. Heard, the Supreme Court of Missouri held that two Missouri statutes[22] prohibiting attendance of prisoners at civil trials were valid under the constitution because they did not deny prisoners access to the courts or discriminate against a suspect class.[23]  While the court acknowledged a clear constitutional right of access to the courts, it defined the prisoner’s right as meaningful access to the courts rather than perfect access.[24]  Under this standard, the court reasoned that constitutionally sufficient access to the courts could be provided through means other than personal physical attendance.[25]  However, the court stressed the prison system cannot unduly interfere with a prisoner’s access to the courts.[26]  The court noted various “significant alternatives”[27] to personal presence permitted by Missouri including traditional deposition, videotaped deposition, and bench trials conducted in the prison.[28] 
However, Missouri has determined that statutes preventing prisoners from instituting divorce proceedings are unconstitutional and inconsistent with due process rights.[29]  InThompson v. Bond, the U. S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri held that a statute preventing inmates from initiating civil actions was constitutionally invalid because it denied prisoner’s rights to access the courts and limiting disruption to the prison administration and objectives were not compelling government interests.[30]  The court again stressed the existence of alternatives to personal preference as diminished burden on the court system and prison administration.[31] 
III.  Instant Decision
        The court denied direct transfer and transferred the appeal to the court of appeals because there was not a real and substantial and substantial constitutional challenge to the validity of the statute, which prevented the Court from invoking exclusive appellate jurisdiction.[32]  The court initially noted the standard required for direct appeal through the Supreme Court’s exclusive appellate jurisdiction: “The Missouri constitution vests this [c]ourt with exclusive appellate jurisdiction in all cases involving the validity of a statute.”[33]  The requirement was further defined as requiring a “real and substantial” constitutional issue rather than a mere “colorable” argument.[34] 
        Applying the exclusive appellate jurisdiction standard to McNeal’s constitutionally contested statutes, which prohibited prisoners from personal presence in civil actions, the court emphasized that the court had recently deemed one of the statutes constitutionally valid in a previous decision.  Dismissing McNeal’s argument that the previous applicable decision was “a joke and should be overruled,” the court stated that no actual deprivation to the courts and the availability of alternative attendance options reinforced the previous constitutional determination.[35]  The court applied the same reasoning in determining that the second statute was valid because McNeal used the same argument for each statute and failed to present a real and substantial challenge.[36]  Though McNeal’s allegation of not being allowed alternative presence by the circuit court constituted a real and substantial constitutional issue, the court stressed that this failure was caused by a failure to appropriately apply the statutory requirements rather than a proper application of an invalid statute.[37] 
        Conversely, the dissent noted that the issue was one of first impression because the trial court had never applied the statute to deny alternative court presence to an inmate, which made the statute invalid as applied.[38]  As a constitutional issue of first impression, the dissent stressed that exclusive appellate jurisdiction did apply: “A real and substantial constitutional question is presented when a case is one of first impression.”[39]  Further, the dissent cited the circuit court’s docket entries in discovering that the order and judgment granting a motion to dismiss was prior to any motion to dismiss ever being filed by the respondent.[40]  The dissent concluded that such an application of the statute – which completely subverts the statutorily provided alternatives – is equivalent to the alternatives not even existing.[41]  However, the majority’s delineation between invalid statute and an isolated invalid application of the statute ultimately made the appeal inapplicable for exclusive appellate jurisdiction.[42]
IV.  Comment
        The court’s transferring of the appeal to the Missouri Court of Appeals represents an emphasis on judicial procedure rather than judicial efficiency.  The court’s limitation on its exclusive appellate jurisdiction narrowly, but appropriately applies the constitutional limitation of direct appeals.  However, the dissent’s concern about blatant and seemingly egregious unconstitutional applications of statutes not being a sufficiently substantial issue does raise concerns about the due process of inmates.
        An apprehension of an expanded exclusive appellate jurisdiction would be the increase in direct appeals from petitioners attempting to bypass the court of appeals because they believe their circuit court error was so unjust and unconstitutional – despite no actual invalid statute or provision.  However, this fear of a “slippery slope” is likely less slippery than it appears in theory.  The Supreme Court denies numerous transfer requests over the course of the year and the increase from this decision would unlikely place an incredible burden on the court’s transfer process.
        While the overarching concerns of due process are significant, it is important that the jurisdictional process is followed in achieving these constitutional interests.  It is not sufficient for an appeal to be merely a constitutional issue; it must be real and substantial issue with the statute.  Here, it appeared that this was an isolated and invalid application of a statute rather than an invalid statute itself.  The appellate court’s role is to review circuit court errors and there are legitimate interests in limiting the Supreme Court of Missouri’s exclusive appellate jurisdiction.  It is important to reserve the highest state court for the most essential cases, and it is often imperative to maintain a streamlined jurisdictional process to maintain order within a court system.  While it does appear that McNeal’s rights were violated by his denial to alternative court appearance, the appellate court system provides a specific hierarchy and will ultimately lead to a correct result.
  • Mark Ohlms

[1] McNeal v. McNeal-Sydnor, 472 S.W.3d 194 (Mo. 2015) (en banc).
[2] Id. at 196-97 (Stith, J., dissenting).
[3] Id. at 195 (majority opinion).
[4] Id.
[5] Id. at 199 (Stith, J., dissenting).
[6] Id.
[7] Id. at 194-95 (majority opinion).
[8] Id. at 194.
[9] Mo. Rev. Stat. §§ 544.275, 491.230 (2000).
[10] McNeal, 472 S.W.3d at 194.
[11] Id. at 195.
[12] Id.
[13] Id. at 199 (Stith, J., dissenting).
[14] Id. at 201.
[15]  Id. at 195-96.
[16] Mo. Const. art. V, § 3.
[17] Id.
[18]  McNeal, 472 S.W.3d at 195.
[19]  Id. (citing Alumax Foils, Inc. v. City of St. Louis, 939 S.W.2d 907, 912 (Mo. 1997) (en banc)). 
[20] Mo. Const. art. V, § 11.
[21] Call v. Heard, 925 S.W.2d 840, 846 (Mo. 1996) (en banc).
[22] Mo. Rev. Stat. §§ 544.275, 491.230 (2000).
[23] Call, 925 S.W.2d at 856.
[24] Id. at 846 (citing Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977)).
[25] Id.
[26] Id. at 846.
[27] Id.
[28] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 544.275 (2000).
[29] Thompson v. Bond, 421 F. Supp. 878, 882 n.5 (W.D. Mo. 1976).  See State ex rel. Kittrell v. Carr, 878 S.W.2d 859, 862 (Mo. Ct. App. 1994).
[30] Id. at 885.
[31] Id.
[32] McNeal v. McNeal-Sydnor, 472 S.W.3d 194, 196 (Mo. 2015) (banc).
[33] Id at 195
[34] Id.
[35] Id.
[36] Id.
[37] Id. at 196.
[38] Id. at 197. (Stith, J., dissenting).
[39] Id.
[40] Id. at 200.
[41] Id. at 201.
[42] Id. at 196.