In Yet Another Blow to Judicial Independence, High Court Allows Congress to Limit Prison Litigation

June 19, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — In a fresh blow to the independence of the federal courts, the Supreme Court today reinstated a key provision of a 1995 law aimed at curtailing federal court oversight of state prisons.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which argued against the law’s provision in U.S. v. French, said that allowing Congress to second-guess the courts violates the constitutional principle of separation of powers and further weakens a federal court system already hobbled by government-imposed limits.

“Much to our disappointment, the Court today put its stamp of approval on the direct legislative suspension of judicial decisions,” said Ken Falk, Legal Director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, who argued the case before the High Court last April. “This ruling has grave repercussions not only for prison litigation cases, but for any case that Congress may choose to weigh in on.”

At issue is a provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which weakens federal court oversight of unconstitutional prison conditions and provides only 90 days for courts to rule on often complex cases before previously entered judgments are stayed.

In effect, Falk said, Congress is forcing its timetable on an already overworked federal court system.

“At least the Justices today didn’t foreclose the possibility that district courts could suspend stays on court-ordered decrees on due process grounds,” he added.

Writing in a dissent joined by Justice Stevens, Justice Stephen Breyer said that the majority ruling in this case ignores the “extreme circumstances that at least some prison litigation originally sought to correct, the complexity of the resulting judicial decrees, and the potential difficulties arising out of the subsequent need to review those decrees in order to make certain they follow Congress’ PLRA directives.”

Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said that today’s ruling is yet another example of how the 1995 Prison Litigation Reform Act has restricted federal courts from exercising their judgment in the majority of prison litigation cases, many of them involving rape and sexual abuse, physical abuse, squalid conditions and lack of medical care.

In 1996, after Congress passed the PLRA and other restrictions on the independence, scope and power of the nation’s federal courts, the ACLU issued a report, “Court Stripping: Congress Undermines the Power of the Judiciary,” available online at

In addition, seeking to raise awareness about the importance of independent courts, the ACLU recently launched the Access to Justice Project. The Project aims to educate the public about the role of the federal courts and about the very real limitations Congress imposed on the courts in 1995 and since.

The case is U.S. v. French et al., consolidated with Miller v. French et al., Nos. 99-224 and 99-582, respectively. Falk was lead counsel for the ACLU, joined by attorneys Jacquelyn E. Bowie, Sean C. Lemieux, E. Paige Freitag, Christopher M. Gibson, also with the Indiana Civil Liberties Union; Hamid R. Kashani of Indianapolis; Steven R. Shapiro, Legal Director of the national ACLU; and Elizabeth Alexander, Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project.

The Court’s decision is online at

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