The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has given new life to a lawsuit by an Arkanas prison inmate who objected to being shackled to a bed while delivering a baby despite severe contractions and the wishes of medical personnel that she be freed.

A three-judge appeals court panel had overruled a district judge and said both a prison guard, Patricia Turensky, and Prison Director Larry Norris were immune from suit as state employees. The guard and Norris argued that it was reasonable to shackle a pregnant inmate in the final stages of a difficult delivery —  not unconstitutionally cruel punishment.

The 8th Circuit ruled en banc today — on a 6-5 split decision — that the suit should be reinstated against the guard, though not Norris because he was not directly involved in the care the inmate received. District Judge Jim Moody had said claims against both the guard and Norris should go to trial.

The court was unanimous on releasing Norris from liability. That rubs prison advocates a little raw because they believe he had to be aware that the policies he backed had the practical effect of overuse of shackles on pregnant inmates. His angry reaction to efforts to change that policy at the legislature is also typical of the prison’s institutional view of outside critics. Only the bravest legislator or governor has ever dared push back.

It’s a big case with potential national implications depending on what happens at trial in the district court.

Arkansas judges on the 8th Circuit split on the case — Lavensky Smith with the inmate and Bobby Shepherd with the guard.

UPDATE: The ACLU hails today’s decision as a strong precedent against shackling.