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April 20, 2011

Does today's SCOTUS ruling on prisoner suits under RLUIPA have any criminal justice bite?

The Supreme Court handed down a prisoner rights ruling this morning in Sossamon v. Texas (available here), which concerns inmate lawsuits seeking money damages from state governments for violating federal statutory rights.  I have not followed the case, but this SCOTUSblog post by Lyle Denniston has me wondering about whether there is something for criminal justice fans in the ruling:

Raising higher the constitutional barrier to lawsuits seeking money from state governments for violating federal laws, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that Congress must declare very explicitly that states give up their immunity to such claims when they accept federal funds for any program.  By a vote of 6-2, the Court barred money damages under a law passed in 2000, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, but the ruling spoke more broadly on the Eleventh Amendment immunity issue when Congress uses its spending power to set up and pay for a federal program.

The Court’s opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, was keyed to two main conclusions: first, the phrase “appropriate relief” in a federal spending law is not explicit enough to take away states’ immunity to money claims, even though that phrase usually is understood to include money damages, and, second, laws passed under the Constitution’s Spending Clause do not operate like a normal contract, when a state government receives the funds, even though ordinarily money damages are a normal remedy for a contract violation.  Both of those constitutional interpretations would apply to any Spending Clause-based program in which states accepted federal funds.

In addition, the opinion, somewhat threateningly, implied that there may be a significant question about Congress’s authority under its spending or commerce-regulation power even to pass the kind of law at issue in this case: a law seeking to compel states to respect the religious rights of persons in prisons and other state-run institutions.  The Court said in a footnote that no one had raised those questions, so the decision did not pass upon them.  That kind of comment, though, could be seen by at least some states as a hint that they might attempt such a challenge to that federal obligation.

I highlighted the sentence above in part because the federal government frequently seeks to impact lots of state-run criminal justice institutions through the power of the purse.  I doubt that Sossamon will really impact these realities, but perhaps others see matters a bit differently.

April 20, 2011 at 05:24 PM | Permalink


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LOL the big question is ...

Is anyone really suprised that the new version of the u.s. supremem court came down on the side of govt against it's own citizens.

I'm certainly not!

Posted by: rodsmith | Apr 20, 2011 8:23:14 PM

Amazing post.. US courts are always been involved in starting such new cases..

Posted by: Data Room | Apr 21, 2011 9:37:13 PM

The way I see it, there are some questions about the authority of Congress to pass legislation like this under the COMMERCE clause. See, e.g., Daker v. Ferrero, 475 F. Supp. 2d 1325, 1345 & n. 10 (N.D. Ga. 2007) ("the Court need not, and does not decide whether the conduct regulated by RLUIPA is 'economic' under the Commerce Clause — or is conceivably so").

But Congress pretty clearly has the authority to pass RLUIPA under the SPENDING clause. So long as the States are free to reject federal funding, there is no "compulsion". See South Dakota v. Dole, 483 U.S. 203 (1987).

Posted by: Matthew Caplan | Apr 23, 2011 10:17:32 AM

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