State Prisoners, Federal Courts, and Playing by the Rules: an Analysis of the Aldisert Committee's Recommended Procedures for Handling Prisoner Civil Rights Cases

Publication year1981
CitationVol. 5 No. 01


State Prisoners, Federal Courts, and Playing by the Rules: An Analysis of the Aldisert Committee's Recommended Procedures for Handling Prisoner Civil Rights Cases

Gay Gellhorn

In the past fifteen years, prisoners in state correctional facilities and local jails filed more than seventy-five thousand petitions in federal courts(fn1) under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983.(fn2) Section 1983 complainants seek relief for deprivations of constitutional rights by persons acting under color of state authority. State prisoners challenge the conditions of their confinement, such as living space, sanitation, medical care, and food.(fn3) The petitions allege acts by state employees violating such rights as free exercise of religion,(fn4) access to the courts,(fn5) communication,(fn6) and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.(fn7) The constitutional deprivation may be grave - more than a year in solitary confinement as retaliation for unpopular Black Muslim beliefs and jailhouse lawyering activity(fn8) - or slight - seven packs of cigarettes taken by a guard without due process of law.(fn9) In either case, broad statutory language permits the state prisoner to take his complaint directly to a federal court. He is not impeded by a minimum amount in controversy,(fn10) nor must he exhaust either administrative or state judicial remedies.(fn11) By 1980, one out of fourteen civil cases filed in federal district courts was a prisoner section 1983 petition.(fn12)

Prisoner section 1983 complaints are a recent and distinctive phenomenon in the federal courts. In the past fifteen years, finite judicial resources were strained by a 138% increase in civil filings,(fn13) while during the same period prisoner civil rights petitions increased over 5500%.(fn14) This disproportionate statistic is not the whole picture, however. Prisoner civil rights cases actually consume minimal court time. Judges dismiss over ninety percent before pretrial.(fn15) The cases are only half as likely to go to trial as other civil actions.(fn16) One district, for example, reported 833 prisoner section 1983 cases, nearly thirty percent of its civil caseload. Those petitions, however, consumed only five trial days.(fn17)

The expeditious removal of almost all prisoner section 1983 cases from the docket before pretrial is evidence of a distinctive procedural response. Frequently, judges and court personnel have moved away from the uniform Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, proceeding instead under local court rules or unwritten practices not applicable to other civil cases. This Comment examines that response, and in particular the procedures recommended by a Federal Judicial Center committee.(fn18) The Aldisert Committee published its final report(fn19) in 1980, concluding that both judicial economy and the just disposition of individual prisoner cases can best be accomplished by singling out section 1983 suits for treatment different from that accorded other civil actions.(fn20) This Comment disagrees. Where the procedures conflict with statutes or the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, they exceed the limits of courts' rule-making authority, calling into question the legitimacy of disposing of prisoner cases in this manner. Further, local court rules responding to one category of civil litigation undermine the uniformity of procedure sought by the Federal Rules. If, additionally, the recommendations do not effectively promote the purpose of procedure in federal courts, "the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action,"(fn21) the Committee's procedural response to the perceived problem of prisoner section 1983 complaints may be shortsighted and less appropriate than some existing statutory alternatives.

The Comment first will recapitulate the full range of procedural initiatives proposed by the Aldisert Committee for adoption as local court rules. Then it will analyze the Committee's recommendations relating to pleading forms and screening the complaints before service of process, the critical stage at which courts dispose of most prisoner complaints. Although concluding that important aspects of the recommended procedures are fundamentally inconsistent with federal statutes and rules, this Comment acknowledges the valid concerns generating the Committee's proposals, and then suggests alternative judicial actions responsive to the phenomenon of state prisoner civil rights complaints in federal courts.

A Summary of the Aldisert Committee Proposals

At the initiative of Chief Justice Burger, the Federal Judicial Center, research arm of the federal courts,(fn22) formed a committee to study the prisoner petition phenomenon. After a five-year study, solicitation of district judges' and magistrates' views, and two draft reports, the Aldisert Committee published Recommended Procedures for Handling Prisoner Civil Rights Cases in the Federal Courts.(fn23) The procedures are used in at least half the circuits.(fn24) The Federal Judicial Center has circulated the report to the bench, and distributes it to magistrates as part of the training for which the Center is statutorily responsible.(fn25)Thus, although the Judicial Conference has neither adopted the Committee's recommendations nor endorsed the underlying premises,(fn26) the report is an influential document warranting thoughtful analysis.

The Aldisert Committee encourages districts with a heavy prisoner caseload to delegate the complaints to their magistrates, and to adopt procedures and forms by local court rule.(fn27) A special staff law clerk, or, preferably, a magistrate, would centrally process a mandatory complaint form.(fn28) Most prisoners request waiver of court fees;(fn29) a required form would present the prisoner's request to file in forma pauperis.(fn30) The magistrate would grant or deny the request only on the basis of the prisoner's economic status.(fn31) Once the magistrate grants leave to proceed in forma pauperis, the clerk would file the complaint.(fn32) Magistrates would then decide whether process should issue, or whether to recommend to the judge that the filed complaint be dismissed before service of process on the defendant.(fn33) The plaintiff could object within ten days to the magistrate's recommendation(fn34) and the court would have discretion to permit amendment of the complaint.(fn35)

If the complaint were not dismissed, the marshal would serve process(fn36) and the court would mail the prisoner-petitioner instructions to send copies of all future documents to the defendant and to the clerk of the court.(fn37) During pretrial, magistrates would hear and decide any nondispositive motion.(fn38) Under the Aldisert Committee recommendations, local court rules could extend time periods for making and answering motions,(fn39) as well as limit discovery to a short period.(fn40) The plaintiff would use a form to summarize the anticipated testimony of his witnesses so that the court could decide whether to go to the expense of bringing a witness or the petitioner to the court.(fn41) The court could also use a special report form to discover defendant's version of the facts.(fn42)

For the prisoner petitions not dismissed at the pleading and motion stages, magistrates could determine that the difficulties of a pretrial conference outweigh its benefits. In that case, they would review the case file and prepare a pretrial order without participation of the parties or their attorneys.(fn43) If no appeal were taken, the order would bind the parties in a subsequent hearing/(fn44) Magistrates could try the case, or serve as a special master, if the parties consent.(fn45) Alternatively, the magistrates could conduct an evidentiary hearing and submit findings and recommendations to the district court judge, who has broad authority to reach his own decision.(fn46)

The Limits on Courts' Rule-Making Authority

Because the Aldisert Committee recommends adoption of procedures by local court rules, the first issue raised by the preceding overview is the scope of federal courts' rule-making authority. Local district courts do have statutory authority to make and amend rules by majority action of their judges.(fn47) Those rules, however, must not be inconsistent with Acts of Congress or with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,(fn48) nor may procedural rules change any litigant's substantive rights(fn49) or the court's jurisdiction.(fn50) The following analysis tests the recommended procedures against these limits.

Analysis of Pleading Under the Aldisert Procedures

Several provisions in the proposed mandatory complaint form(fn51) exceed the court's rule-making authority. Although the report states that a prisoner's failure to conform to the local rule requirements of this form would justify a court's refusal to file the complaint,(fn52) if the provisions are not valid, it is the prisoner, rather than the court, who would be justified in rejecting the complaint form.

A venue limitation is a clear example of a provision in the recommended complaint form that conflicts with federal statute, abridging a substantive right and modifying jurisdiction. The complaint form instructs the prisoner-plaintiff that he may bring his action in the court "only if one or more of the named defendants is located within this district."(fn53) This conflicts with Congress' mandate that venue for claims arising...

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