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PLRA Termination Provision Constitutional in Eleventh Circuit

The court of appeals for the Eleventh circuit held that the termination provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(2), does not violate the separation-of-powers doctrine, the due process clause, nor the equal protection clause of the fifth amendment.

For years Florida death row prisoners enjoyed virtually no outdoor exercise. Indeed, one prisoner's leg bone snapped as a result of lack of exercise. In 1981 a lawsuit was commenced and a class certified. Two years later the court approved a consent decree requiring prison officials to provide two two-hour exercises sessions per week, weather permitting.

After several years of non compliance, this court found prison officials in contempt, and entered a highly detailed remedial order. While the appeal was pending, the PLRA became law. In response, the Eleventh circuit remanded the ease to determine if the situation met the PLRA conditions that preclude termination. On remand the trial court concluded that § 3626(b)(2) is unconstitutional.

On the subsequent appeal the Eleventh circuit joined the Fourth, Plyler v. Moore , 100 F.3d 365 (1996), and the Eighth circuits, Gavin v. Branstad , 122 F.3d 1081 (1997), in holding § 3626(b)(2)'s termination provision constitutional. However, the court declined to follow the second circuit's reasoning in the vacated ruling of Benjamin v. Jacobson , 124 F.3d 162 (1997).

In reaching this decision the court rejected the prisoners' invitation to evaluate the holistic effect of the statute on court access because the issue was not properly before the court. The court also brushed aside the prisoners' contention that the PLRA discriminated against prisoners and is not rationally related to a legitimate government purpose. The court found the Act advanced "the unquestionably legitimate end of minimizing prison operation by judges."

In conclusion, the court vacated the remedial order and remanded the action "without limitation for further proceedings consistent with th[e] opinion and the PLRA." See: Dougan v. Singletary , 129 F.3d 1424 (11th Cir. 1997)

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Related legal case

Dougan v. Singletary

Dougan v. Singletary, 129 F.3d 1424 (11th Cir. 12/01/1997)

[1] U.S. Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

[2] No. 93-2008.

[4] December 01, 1997


[6] Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida., Wm. Terrell Hodges, Judge.

[7] For appellant: Joe Belitzky, Assistant Attorney General, Department of Legal Affairs, The Capitol, Tallahassee, Florida. Charlie McCoy, AAG, Cecilia Bradley.

[8] For appellee: William J. Sheppard, Jacksonville, Florida. D. Gray Thomas. SHEPPARD & WHITE, P.A.

[9] Before Cox, Circuit Judge, and Clark and Wood,*fn* Senior Circuit Judges.


[11] We address in this appeal the constitutionality of 18 U.S.C.A. § 3626(b)(2), which requires termination of existing prison-litigation consent decrees that do not satisfy its standards. We conclude that the statute withstands the constitutional challenges presented.


[13] Seeking more outdoor exercise, Florida death row inmates sued prison officials in 1981. A class was certified, and in 1983 the district court approved a consent decree directing the officials to provide two two-hour exercise sessions per week, weather permitting. Several years later, the court found the prison officials in contempt for violating the decree and entered a highly detailed remedial order that leaves the prison officials far less discretion in deciding when inmates may exercise. The prison officials appealed, contending that the remedial order went too far.

[14] While the appeal was pending, the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which includes 18 U.S.C.A. § 3626, became law. Section 3626(b)(2) requires a court to terminate "prospective relief," which includes existing consent decrees,*fn1 if the relief was not awarded or approved based on a finding that the relief was "narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right [claimed to have been violated], and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right."*fn2 The court may not terminate the relief, however, if the court finds that the relief satisfies these three conditions at the time of the motion to terminate.*fn3

[15] Pursuant to § 3626(b)(2), the prison officials moved this court to terminate the consent decree. This court remanded the action to the district court to rule on the motion. The district court denied the motion, concluding that § 3626(b)(2) is unconstitutional. The prison officials have now raised the propriety of that ruling as an issue in this appeal, and the parties have submitted supplemental briefs.

[16] In support of the district court's ruling, the inmates contend that because § 3626(b)(2) limits the enforcement of a final judgment, the statute violates the separation-of-powers doctrine inherent in the Constitution. They further assert that § 3626(b)(2) compromises their due process and equal protection rights. The prison officials, and the United States intervening under Fed. R.App. P. 44, counter that consent decrees are not, for these purposes, final judgments because they can be amended as equity requires. They further respond the statute violates neither due process nor equal protection rights.


[18] a. Constitutionality of § 3626(b)(2)

[19] We join two other courts of appeal and hold that § 3626(b)(2)'s termination provision is constitutional.*fn4 The inmates' first challenge to the statute rests on the separation-of-powers doctrine implicit in Article III. Among other prohibitions, that doctrine forbids legislation that "commands the federal courts to reopen final judgments."*fn5 The PLRA does not run afoul of that prohibition.

[20] The consent decrees that the PLRA requires courts to review under the statute's more stringent standards are not final judgments for separation-of-powers purposes. As the Court explained in Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc., a true "final judgment" here means not an appealable judgment, but one that represents the "last word of the judicial department with regard to a particular case or controversy."*fn6 Consent decrees are final judgments,*fn7 but not the "last word of the judicial department." District courts retain jurisdiction over such decrees not only to ensure compliance, but also to amend them as significant changes in law and fact require.*fn8 Plaut invalidated a statute that resurrected claims that had been dismissed with prejudice on statute-of-limitations grounds, a judgment that can be modified under only the most extraordinary circumstances; § 3626(b)(2)'s effect on comparatively adaptable consent decrees is distinguishable. The PLRA's termination provision thus does not undermine the finality of a final judgment in the separation-of-powers sense.*fn9 The provision accordingly does not violate the separation-of-powers doctrine as contended.*fn10

[21] The inmates challenge § 3626(b)(2)'s constitutionality on two other grounds. First, they contend that the statute impermissibly reopens a final judgment, in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.*fn11 As the other courts of appeals addressing this issue have pointed out, this due process argument fails because a consent decree, unlike other final judgments, does not give rise to any vested rights.*fn12 The reason is that a decree, unlike a money judgment, is subject to later adaptation to changing conditions. Legislative modification of the law governing the decree thus does not impermissibly divest the inmates of any vested rights.*fn13

[22] Second, the inmates assert that the termination provision violates the equal protection dimension of the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause. Here, the inmates advance a two-tiered argument. The first is that the PLRA as a whole burdens their fundamental right to access to the courts, and thus merits strict scrutiny.*fn14 We reject the inmates' invitation to evaluate the effect of the whole statute on court access; the whole statute's constitutionality is not before the court.*fn15 The termination provision, considered alone, does not deny inmates "a reasonably adequate opportunity to present claimed violations of fundamental constitutional rights to the courts."*fn16 Rather, it restricts the relief that an inmate may receive once he gets to court.*fn17 Because § 3626(b)(2) does not infringe any identified fundamental right, equal protection analysis requires only rational basis review.*fn18 Here the inmates raise their second argument: the PLRA discriminates against prisoners and is not rationally related to a legitimate government interest. Not so. The PLRA's termination provision does discriminate against prisoners (because other litigants need not relitigate consent decrees), but by restricting judicial discretion to remedy constitutional violations it could reasonably be said to advance the unquestionably legitimate end of minimizing prison operation by judges.*fn19 The provision therefore satisfies the demands of the Fifth Amendment's equal protection doctrine.

[23] The inmates have thus pointed to no constitutional provision that the PLRA's termination provision violates. We accordingly conclude that § 3626(b)(2) is constitutional.

[24] b. The Remedial Order

[25] The original issues in this appeal concerned whether the district court's remedial order went too far. Any resolution of those issues would be of questionable value, because § 3626(b)(2) and the prison officials' motion to terminate requires the district court to revisit on remand the propriety of the consent decree and the remedial order. We therefore decline to consider the issues originally presented and leave it for the district court to reconsider the consent decree and remedial order in accordance with the PLRA.


[27] For the foregoing reasons, we VACATE the district court's denial of the motion to terminate. The action is REMANDED without limitation for further proceedings consistent with this opinion and the PLRA.


[29] Disposition



Judges Footnotes


[31] *fn* Honorable Harlington Wood, Jr., Senior U.S. Circuit Judge for the Seventh Circuit, sitting by designation.


Opinion Footnotes


[32] *fn1 See 18 U.S.C.A. § 3626(g)(7), (9) (West Supp.1997).

[33] *fn2 Id. § 3626(b)(2).

[34] *fn3 Id. § 3626(b)(3).

[35] *fn4 Gavin v. Branstad, 122 F.3d 1081, 1085-87 (8th Cir.1997); Plyler v. Moore, 100 F.3d 365, 370-72 (4th Cir.1996), cert. denied, U.S., 117 S. Ct. 2460, 138 L. Ed. 2d 217 (1997). Benjamin v. Jacobson, 124 F.3d 162 (2d Cir.1997), also holds § 3626(b) constitutional as applied to consent decrees, but does so by construing the subsection to limit federal jurisdiction to enforce consent decrees rather than to terminate the decrees. Benjamin relies on the statute's arguably imprecise use of the word "relief," id. at 167, but it does not take into account the use of the word "terminate" to describe the remedy available under the section. We decline to follow the Second Circuit's interpretation.

[36] *fn5 Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc., 514 U.S. 211, 219, 115 S. Ct. 1447, 1453, 131 L. Ed. 2d 328 (1995).

[37] *fn6 Id. at 227, 115 S. Ct. at 1457.

[38] *fn7 Rufo v. Inmates of the Suffolk County Jail, 502 U.S. 367, 392, 112 S. Ct. 748, 764, 116 L. Ed. 2d 867 (1992).

[39] *fn8 Id. at 384, 112 S. Ct. at 760.

[40] *fn9 See Gavin v. Branstad, 122 F.3d 1081, 1088 (8th Cir.1997); Plyler v. Moore, 100 F.3d 365, 371 (4th Cir.1996), cert. denied, U.S., 117 S. Ct. 2460, 138 L. Ed. 2d 217 (1997).

[41] *fn10 The inmates have not argued that § 3626(b)(2) violates the principle of United States v. Klein, 80 U.S. 128, 20 L. Ed. 519 (1872), by legislating the outcome of a particular class of cases. We therefore do not address the argument, but note that other courts of appeals have rejected it. Gavin, 122 F.3d at 1089; Plyler, 100 F.3d at 372.

[42] *fn11 See McCullough v. Virginia, 172 U.S. 102, 123-24, 19 S. Ct. 134, 142, 43 L. Ed. 382 (1898).

[43] *fn12 Gavin, 122 F.3d at 1091; Plyler, 100 F.3d at 374-75.

[44] *fn13 Gavin, 122 F.3d at 1091; Plyler, 100 F.3d at 374-75; see Fleming v. Rhodes, 331 U.S. 100, 107, 67 S. Ct. 1140, 1144, 91 L. Ed. 1368 (1947); see also Landgraf v. USI Film Prods., 511 U.S. 244, 272-74, 114 S. Ct. 1483, 1501, 128 L. Ed. 2d 229 (1994) ("When the intervening statute authorizes or affects the propriety of prospective relief, application of the new provision is not retroactive."); American Steel Foundries v. Tri-City Cent. Trades Council, 257 U.S. 184, 201, 42 S. Ct. 72, 75, 66 L. Ed. 189 (1921) (no vested right in decree subject to review).

[45] *fn14 See, e.g., Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, 116 S. Ct. 1620, 1627, 134 L. Ed. 2d 855 (1996) (explaining equal protection review levels).

[46] *fn15 Contrary to the inmates' suggestion, Romer does not prohibit this court from upholding one section of the statute against an equal protection challenge without addressing the constitutionality of the whole statute. Romer was a facial challenge to an entire provision in a state constitution, and the Romer Court naturally considered the whole provision. See id. at, 116 S. Ct. at 1623. The opinion does not, therefore, imply that piecemeal review is inappropriate for a piecemeal challenge.

[47] *fn16 Lewis v. Casey, U.S., 116 S. Ct. 2174, 2180, 135 L. Ed. 2d 606 (1996).

[48] *fn17 Plyler, 100 F.3d at 373.

[49] *fn18 Romer, 517 U.S. at, 116 S. Ct. at 1627.

[50] *fn19 See Lewis, U.S. at, 116 S. Ct. at 2179 ("It is not the role of courts, but that of the political branches, to shape the institutions of government in such fashion as to comply with the laws and the Constitution.")