Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403 (2002)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the district of columbia circuit

No. 01-394. Argued March 18, 2002—Decided June 20, 2002

Respondent-plaintiff Harbury alleges that Government officials intentionally deceived her in concealing information that her husband, a Guatemalan dissident, had been detained, tortured, and executed by Guatemalan army officers paid by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and that this deception denied her access to the courts by leaving her without information, or reason to seek information, with which she could have brought a lawsuit that might have saved her husband's life. In the District Court, Harbury raised against the CIA, State Department, National Security Council, and officials of each, common- and international law tort claims, and claims under Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U. S. 388, on behalf of her husband's estate, and on her own behalf for violation of, inter alia, her constitutional right of access to courts. The District Court dismissed the Bivens claims. With respect to the access-to-courts counts, the court held that Harbury had not stated a valid cause of action because (1) having filed no prior suit, she could only guess how the alleged coverup might have prejudiced her rights to bring a separate action, and (2) the defendants would be entitled to qualified immunity. Harbury appealed the dismissal of her Bivens claims, but the District of Columbia Circuit reversed only the dismissal of her Bivens claim against petitioners for denial of access to courts.

Held: Harbury has not stated a claim for denial of judicial access.

Pp. 412-422.

(a) Access-to-courts claims fall into two categories: claims that systemic official action frustrates a plaintiff in preparing and filing suits at the present time, where the suits could be pursued once the frustrating condition has been removed; and claims of specific cases that cannot be tried, no matter what official action may be in the future. Regardless of whether the claim turns on a litigating opportunity yet to be gained or an opportunity already lost, the point of recognizing an access claim is to provide some effective vindication for a separate and distinct right to seek judicial relief for some wrong. Thus, the access-to-courts right is ancillary to the underlying claim, without which a plaintiff cannot have suffered injury by being shut out of court. It follows that the


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