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Wisdom from Edward Bennett Williams

Why the Supreme Court Should Grant Cert. in Johnson v. Meadows

At its Nov. 23rd conference, the Supreme Court will decide whether to grant certiorari in Johnson v. Meadows, No. 05-6336.  [UPDATE: On November 14th, the Supreme Court granted cert. in a similar case - Woodford v. Ngo, No. 05-416; my collected Woodford-related posts are available here.]   At issue in Meadows is whether the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which requires prisoners to exhaust administrative remedies before bringing a Section 1983 action against prison officials, also contains a procedural default component.  There are three good reasons for the Court to review the case.

There is a circuit split.  The Supreme Court has becoming increasingly interested in resolving circuit splits.  There is a clear circuit split on this issue. Johnson v. Meadows, which held that the PLRA does contain a procedural default component, differs from the Sixth's and Ninth Circuit's approaches.  (It's worth noting that Judge Alex Kozinski joined the Ninth Circuit panel's decision in Ngo v. Woodford (here), which held the PLRA does not contain a procedural default component.)

The issue is of national importance.  Section 1983 actions arising out of prison conditions number in the tens of thousands.  According to this 1994 report from the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Policy: "[T]here is approximately one lawsuit for every thirty state prison inmates ...."  The importance of procedural issues touching Section 1983 litigation cannot be overstated.

The case will be well-argued.  Many Section 1983 cases reach the Court by accident, and they are argued by people lacking subject-matter fluency.  Steve Dillard is representing the petitioner in this case.  The prisoner will be ably represented, and all arguments supporting the prisoner will be presented.

Moreover (and this goes to the merits as much as to the cert.-worthiness), by reading into the PLRA a procedural default component, the circuits are creating different standards for every prison, and also frustrating Congress' goal that civil rights claims, though they must be exhausted, should also be heard.  In the Johnson case, e.g., the prisoner only had 5 days to give prison officials notice that his rights had been violated.  This has two unfortunate effects. 

First, it imposes a de facto 5-day statute of limitations on prisoner civil rights claims, even though under 42 U.S.C. Section 1988, the statute of limitations for civil rights actions is supposed to mirror the state's general personal injury statute of limitations.  In Georgia, the relevant statute of limitations should have been two years.  Under the Eleventh Circuit's reading of the PLRA, the statute of limitations for prison civil rights suit is 5 days. This disparate treatment of regular civil rights suits vs. prisoner civil rights suit is intolerable, and it is not required or even suggested by the PLRA's text, history, or structure.

Second, the Eleventh Circuit's reading of the PLRA allows potentially different limitations periods in every prison.  Federal law, to the extent possible, should be uniform.  By allowing each prison to set a different exhaustion deadline, there could potentially be as much disconformity as there are prisons.

Johnson v. Meadows is of important practice significance.  The Supreme Court should grant cert. to resolve the circuit split, and then it should reverse the judgment of the Eleventh Circuit.