« Texas board recommends clemency for condemned killer for first time in over a decade | Main | Former federal judge explains how severe sentencing and mandatory minimums prompted his resignation »

February 21, 2018

SCOTUS issues opinions on fees for prisoner suits and the impact of guilty pleas

The Supreme Court this morning handed down four new opinions in argued cases, and these two should be of interest to criminal justice fans:

Murphy v. Smith: "GORSUCH, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C.J., and KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GINSBURG, BREYER, and KAGAN, JJ., joined." From the start and end of the opinion for the Court:

This is a case about how much prevailing prisoners must pay their lawyers. When a prisoner wins a civil rights suit and the district court awards fees to the prisoner’s attorney, a federal statute says that “a portion of the [prisoner’s] judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded against the defendant. If the award of attorney’s fees is not greater than 150 percent of the judgment, the excess shall be paid by the defendant.” 42 U. S. C. §1997e(d)(2). Whatever else you might make of this, the first sentence pretty clearly tells us that the prisoner has to pay some part of the attorney’s fee award before financial responsibility shifts to the defendant. But how much is enough? Does the first sentence allow the district court discretion to take any amount it wishes from the plaintiff ’s judgment to pay the attorney, from 25% down to a penny? Or does the first sentence instead mean that the court must pay the attorney’s entire fee award from the plaintiff ’s judgment until it reaches the 25% cap and only then turn to the defendant? ....

At the end of the day, what may have begun as a close race turns out to have a clear winner. Now with a view of the full field of textual, contextual, and precedential evidence, we think the interpretation the court of appeals adopted prevails. In cases governed by §1997e(d), we hold that district courts must apply as much of the judgment as necessary, up to 25%, to satisfy an award of attorney’s fees.

Class v. United States: "BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C.J., and GINSBURG, SOTOMAYOR, KAGAN, and GORSUCH, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which KENNEDY and THOMAS, JJ., joined."  From the start of the opinion for the Court:

Does a guilty plea bar a criminal defendant from later appealing his conviction on the ground that the statute of conviction violates the Constitution?  In our view, a guilty plea by itself does not bar that appeal.

For a host of reasons, Class is much more consequential, and I hope to find some time to blog more about the opinion in the days ahead. In the meantime, I welcome comments on both the substance and division of the Justices in this latest SCOTUS activity.

February 21, 2018 at 10:30 AM | Permalink


Gorsuch missed his calling. Should have been an English teacher. Note how the majority and dissent interpret the same text differently. Text only takes us so far.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 21, 2018 10:37:59 AM

If reading Class correctly, it seems like they opted to decide the case on constitutional grounds -- which would therefore apply to state courts -- rather than the language of the federal rule (which they seem to hold do not directly address the issue). So this ruling, at least potentially, also applies in those jurisdictions that do not allow conditional pleas. It also seems to imply that a defendant can waive his right to appeal this type of claim but that there has to be something beyond just pleading guilty to support the finding that the defendant waived his right to appeal.

Posted by: tmm | Feb 21, 2018 11:02:04 AM

Now I'm know I'm approaching senility because I just don't understand what this case says. Would one of you brilliant (but good teacher types) spell it out --as if you were talking to an eighth-grader.

Much appreciated in advance.

Posted by: Anon 13 | Feb 21, 2018 1:39:24 PM

I join in Anon 13's puzzlement.

Is the holding good for the prevailing prisoner? Good for the prevailiing prisoner's lawyer? good for the defendant?
Does it depend on the circumstances? HELP!!!

Posted by: Sandra | Feb 21, 2018 1:41:17 PM

Flashback ... https://www.oyez.org/cases/1991/90-6531

[John Roberts starts about 17m in]

Posted by: Joe | Feb 21, 2018 2:02:58 PM

Anon 13 and Sandra: I think Murphy is, generally speaking, a win for prison-official defendants and a loss for prevailing prisoner-plaintiffs. Now, the prisoner-plaintiff must always give 25% of his monetary judgment to cover his attorney fee award, whereas the dissent claims the statute should be read to give district courts discretion to decide how much the prisoner-plaintiff should have to allocate to his lawyer. But slightly differently (and not quite accurately), the Murphy court is reading the applicable statute to say that there is always a fixed 25% contingency fee for prisoners who win these cases --- rather than, as the dissent suggests, discretion for the court to make the fee percentage lower.

I say "generally speaking" because this ruling does not, as I see it, eliminate some other discretion that I believe district courts have in these kinds of cases in setting prisoner-plaintiff awards and in setting fees. In this case, for example, the "jury awarded Murphy $409,750.00 in compensatory and punitive damages, which the District Court reduced to $307,733.82." If the District Court knew Murphy essentially HAD to give 25% of his award to his lawyer, perhaps the District Court would not have reduced the jury award. Also, in various settings, district courts have lots of discretion over the size of attorney fee awards.

Because I have not represented any prisoner plaintiffs, my analysis is entirely ivory-tower-based. But I hope this helps a bit.

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 21, 2018 3:32:10 PM

Class was about being able to constitutionally attack gun-control laws--the type of law he was persecuted under.

Hopefully this means that the court is ready to scrutinize gun-control laws and not continue to uphold them like they did yesterday with respect to the waiting periods in California.

But the outcome was obvious. As Justice Notorious Ginsburg said in the oral arguments--this is exactly what Loving did in Loving v. Virginia, they pled guilty to being [in] a racially-mixed marriage, and then attacked the law that prohibited it. If the plea bargain had taken away their right to attack the law, the court would've never taken up the case in the first place. But you can't waive your right to attack a law, otherwise the government could get rid of judicial review by requiring plea bargains.

Posted by: Higher Class of the Last Gentleman | Feb 21, 2018 8:32:27 PM

Higher Class, government can't require plea bargains -- there is that pesky little right to a jury trial in the Constitution. It can just make an offer that is too good to refuse (but often those offers will eliminate the constitutional claim by requiring a plea to some alternative charge that lacks the potential infirmity.)

Additionally, Class seems to permit an express waiver of the right to appeal. What it appears to establish is a default rule that challenges to the validity of the statute are not automatically waived by the guilty plea.

As to Loving, the decision in Loving pre-dated the line of cases dealing with what is and is not waived in a guilty plea. If Loving had arisen in 1980, Virginia would probably have tried to assert a waiver argument.

Finally, the weird split -- where the Justices most interested in the Second Amendment voted against permitting an appeal and the Justices least interested in a broad interpretation of the Second Amendment supported the right to appeal -- tells me that Class has very little to do with the merits of his claim. To the extent that there is any interest in the merits of his claims, it is more likely to be with the due process part of the argument (that there was no notice that the parking lot was "capitol grounds" and that defendant was entering a "gun-free" zone.

Posted by: tmm | Feb 22, 2018 11:08:13 AM

The 2A aspect of the dispute is somewhat interesting but the overall right at issue will rarely turn on that sort of dispute, even less so successfully. The dissenters probably realize that as well. So, it is not surprising that the justices would not let that influence them much. Gorsuch and to some extent probably Roberts is more 2A friendly than Kennedy so the split is not totally somewhat counterintuitive on that end at any rate. Overall, the split shows that there are various divisions on the Court and that at times Roberts/Gorsuch will split with the others with Thomas' somewhat idiosyncratic views sometimes leading him to join them.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 22, 2018 6:05:46 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB