Rights without Remedy: Federal Judges and the Making of the Prison Litigation Reform Act

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:40 AM
Wabash Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Amanda Hughett, State University of New York at Buffalo
In 1996, U.S. Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), a bill effectively closing the federal courtroom doors to inmates’ lawsuits contesting prison practices and conditions. This paper illuminates federal judges’ role in shaping this legislation. Since the 1970s, a small group of conservative legislators had attempted to pass similar laws restricting the federal court’s ability to hear cases involving a wide range of controversial issues, including civil rights, abortion, and school prayer. Overwhelmingly, their efforts fell flat. Yet those advocating for the PLRA had a powerful weapon in their arsenal: decades of reports from the judiciary complaining that inmates’ “frivolous,” meaning not legally actionable, lawsuits clogged the courts and impeded their efficiency. During the debates surrounding the PLRA, the bill’s supporters in Congress manipulated the legal language of federal judges—a nonpartisan group of government actors—to advocate for its passage. By singling out inmates’ litigation as particularly problematic, then, federal judges helped lay the groundwork for the bill.

Federal judges’ role in the making of the PLRA, I suggest, highlights judges’ wide-reaching ability to shape American politics. It also illuminates how the long history of prisoners’ marginalized legal status shaped their relationship to the law well into the twentieth century. As the litigation rate rose in the 1960s and 1970s, judges attended conferences and participated in working groups to debate how best to respond to the phenomenon. While engaging in these activities, they helped set the terms of public debate concerning the proper role of the judiciary. Struggling to reconcile the seeming mismatch between inmates’ status as wards of the state with their many and varied rights claims, federal judges spilled a sea of ink discussing the “prison litigation problem.” In turn, conservative legislators seized on judges’ language to rollback the limited progress inmates’ rights claims had afforded them.

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