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U.S. Supreme Court: State Prisoners May Challenge Unconstitutional Parole Procedures Under § 1983 If Earlier Release Doesn't Necessarily Follow

U.S. Supreme Court: State Prisoners May Challenge
Unconstitutional Parole Procedures Under § 1983
If Earlier Release Doesn't Necessarily Follow

by John E. Dannenberg

The U.S. Supreme Court held that state prisoners attacking the constitutionality of procedures used in either parole-eligibility or parole-suitability proceedings may avoid the state-court exhaustion requirements of federal habeas corpus (28 U.S.C. § 2254) and instead bring their actions immediately under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, providing that the relief sought would not necessarily invalidate or shorten state-imposed confinement. If earlier release is sought, however, the action may be brought only in habeas corpus.

Ohio state (life) prisoner William Dotson complained that Ohio's parole authority violated his due process and Ex Post Facto rights by denying him parole eligibility for five years in 2000, based upon a harsher eligibility guideline established in 1998. He asked not for release, but for a new hearing under the earlier rules. The U.S. District Court (N.D. Ohio) denied relief, holding that any action challenging parole denial must be brought in habeas corpus.

Separately, Ohio state prisoner Rogerico Johnson, serving 10-30 years, was denied parole suitability in 2000, also based upon the harsher 1998 Ohio regulatory changes, and likewise sought a new hearing under the earlier guidelines, which the U.S. District Court rejected because it was not brought in habeas corpus. The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals consolidated the two cases and reversed (329 F.3d 463 (6th Cir. 2003); PLN, Apr. 2004, p.17).

On Ohio's petition for certiorari, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Sixth Circuit. In an 8-1 ruling, the Supreme Court breathed fresh air into the plight of legions of prisoners nationwide, who have found themselves sandbagged by politicized parole boards and state courts that transmogrify the rules" of parole suitability and eligibility each passing year - retrospectively making them harsher than their earlier sentence/parole guidelines.

The Court's bright-line rule is easy to follow. If a party challenges the parole authority's procedures as being unconstitutional, and the relief sought is a new (and fair) hearing, the complaint may be filed under § 1983. But if the relief sought from an unconstitutional denial of parole is the court-ordered foreshortening of state-imposed incarceration, the party must use habeas corpus.

The importance of this distinction is difficult to overstate. Following the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), the rules for 28 U.S.C. § 2254 state prisoner habeas attacks have become very restrictive. In addition to the one-year time limit to bring a § 2254 action after exhausting state administartive and court remedies (see, e.g., Redd v. McGrath, 343 F.3d 1077 (9th Cir.2003), PLN, Feb. 2005, p.26), claims are limited to those already plainly adjudicated by the U.S. Supreme Court at the time the rights were violated.

On the other hand, § 1983 civil rights complaints require exhaustion of state administrative (but not state court) remedies prior to filing in federal district court. And the exclusion of claims not previously adjudicated by the U.S. Supreme Court does not apply. In fact, the relative parole-related benefits/distinctions of § 1983 and § 2254 are now so plain that a stymied life prisoner might well want to file under both statutes: § 2254 to gain liberty interests and § 1983 to challenge unconstitutional procedures.

In the instant case, Dotson sought injunctive relief for an immediate parole hearing in accordance with statutory laws and administrative rules in place when he committed his crimes." Johnson expressly sought a new parole hearing conducted under constitutionally proper procedures and an injunction ordering the State to comply with constitutional due process and ex post facto requirements in the future.

Reviewing its precedent in Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475 (1973) [§ 1983 may not be used to challenge fact or duration of confinement], Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974) [§ 1983 may not be used to recover disciplinary good-time credit loss], Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) [§ 1983 damages- only claim may not be used to circumvent habeas corpus if proof of damages would necessarily invalidate underlying conviction or sentence] and Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641 (1997) [cannot use § 1983 to prove the deceit and bias of a disciplinary decision-maker to invalidate loss of good-time credits, but future use of unconstitutional procedures could be enjoined], the court held that if the relief sought would not necessarily invalidate state-imposed confinement," it may be brought in § 1983. But any claim for relief that would necessarily gain relief from such confinement would fall within the core of habeas corpus" and must be so brought.

This new decision essentially overrules Butterfield v. Bail, 120 F.3d 1023, 1024 (9th Cir. 1997) [A challenge to the procedures used in the denial of parole necessarily implicates the validity of the denial of parole and, therefore, the prisoner's continuing confinement.] See: Wilkinson v. Dotson, 125 S. Ct. 1242, (2005).

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Related legal case

Wilkinson v. Dotson

[37] Applying these principles to the present case, we conclude that respondents' claims are cognizable under §1983, i.e., they do not fall within the implicit habeas exception. Dotson and Johnson seek relief that will render invalid the state procedures used to deny parole eligibility (Dotson) and parole suitability (Johnson). See Wolff, supra, at 554-555. Neither respondent seeks an injunction ordering his immediate or speedier release into the community. See Preiser, 411 U. S., at 500; Wolff, supra, at 554. And as in Wolff, a favorable judgment will not "necessarily imply the invalidity of [their] conviction[s] or sentence[s]." Heck, supra, at 487. Success for Dotson does not mean immediate release from confinement or a shorter stay in prison; it means at most new eligibility review, which at most will speed consideration of a new parole application. Success for Johnson means at most a new parole hearing at which Ohio parole authorities may, in their discretion, decline to shorten his prison term. See Ohio Rev. Code Ann. §2967.03 (Lexis 2003) (describing the parole authority's broad discretionary powers); Inmates of Orient Correctional Inst. v. Ohio State Adult Parole Auth. 929 F. 2d 233, 236 (CA6 1991) (same); see also Tr. of Oral Arg. 18 (petitioners' counsel conceding that success on respondents' claims would not inevitably lead to release). Because neither prisoner's claim would necessarily spell speedier release, neither lies at "the core of habeas corpus." Preiser, 411 U. S., at 489. Finally, the prisoners' claims for future relief (which, if successful, will not necessarily imply the invalidity of confinement or shorten its duration) are yet more distant from that core. See Balisok, supra, at 648.

[38] The dissent disagrees with our legal analysis and advocates use of a different legal standard in critical part because, in its view, (1) a habeas challenge to a sentence (a "core" challenge) does not necessarily produce the prisoner's "release" (so our standard "must be ... wrong"), see post, at 1-2, 4; and (2) Heck's standard is irrelevant because Heck concerned only damages, see post, at 4. As to the first, we believe that a case challenging a sentence seeks a prisoner's "release" in the only pertinent sense: It seeks invalidation (in whole or in part) of the judgment authorizing the prisoner's confinement; the fact that the State may seek a new judgment (through a new trial or a new sentencing proceeding) is beside the point. As to the second, Balisok applied Heck's standard and addressed a claim seeking not only damages, but also a separate declaration that the State's procedures were unlawful. See 520 U. S., at 643, 647-648.

[39] III.

[40] Ohio makes two additional arguments. First, Ohio points to language in Heck indicating that a prisoner's §1983 damages action cannot lie where a favorable judgment would "necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence." 512 U. S., at 487 (emphasis added). Ohio then argues that its parole proceedings are part of the prisoners' "sentence[s]" -- indeed, an aspect of the "sentence[s]" that the §1983 claims, if successful, will invalidate.

[41] We do not find this argument persuasive. In context, Heck uses the word "sentence" to refer not to prison procedures, but to substantive determinations as to the length of confinement. See Muhammad v. Close, 540 U. S. 749, 751, n. 1 (2004) (per curiam) ("[T]he incarceration that matters under Heck is the incarceration ordered by the original judgment of conviction"). Heck uses the word "sentence" interchangeably with such other terms as "continuing confinement" and "imprisonment." 512 U. S., at 483, 486; see also Balisok, supra, at 645, 648 (referring to the invalidity of "the judgment" or "punishment imposed"). So understood, Heck is consistent with other cases permitting prisoners to bring §1983 challenges to prison administrative decisions. See, e.g., Wolff, 418 U. S., at 554-555; Muhammad, 540 U. S., at 754; see also ibid., (rejecting "the mistaken view ... that Heck applies categorically to all suits challenging prison disciplinary proceedings"). Indeed, this Court has repeatedly permitted prisoners to bring §1983 actions challenging the conditions of their confinement -- conditions that, were Ohio right, might be considered part of the "sentence." See, e.g., Cooper v. Pate, 378 U. S. 546 (1964) (per curiam); Wilwording v. Swenson, 404 U. S. 249, 251 (1971) (per curiam). And this interpretation of Heck is consistent with Balisok, where the Court held the prisoner's suit Heck-barred not because it sought nullification of the disciplinary procedures but rather because nullification of the disciplinary procedures would lead necessarily to restoration of good-time credits and hence the shortening of the prisoner's sentence. 520 U. S., at 646.

[42] Second, Ohio says that a decision in favor of respondents would break faith with principles of federal/state comity by opening the door to federal court without prior exhaustion of state-court remedies. Our earlier cases, however, have already placed the States' important comity considerations in the balance, weighed them against the competing need to vindicate federal rights without exhaustion, and concluded that prisoners may bring their claims without fully exhausting state-court remedies so long as their suits, if established, would not necessarily invalidate state-imposed confinement. See Part II, supra. Thus, we see no reason for moving the line these cases draw -- particularly since Congress has already strengthened the requirement that prisoners exhaust state administrative remedies as a precondition to any §1983 action. See 42 U. S. C. §1997e(a); Porter v. Nussle, 534 U. S. 516, 524 (2002).

[43] For these reasons, the Sixth Circuit's judgment is affirmed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

[44] It is so ordered.

[45] Scalia, J., concurring

[46] Justice Scalia, with whom Justice Thomas joins, concurring.

[47] I join the Court's opinion, which in my view reads Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U. S. 477 (1994), and Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U. S. 641 (1997), correctly. And I am in full agreement with the Court's holding that "[b]ecause neither prisoner's claim would necessarily spell speedier release, neither lies at `the core of habeas corpus' " and both may be brought under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U. S. C. §1983. Ante, at 8. I write separately to note that a contrary holding would require us to broaden the scope of habeas relief beyond recognition.

[48] Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U. S. 475 (1973), and the cases that follow it hold that Congress, in enacting §1983, preserved the habeas corpus statute as the sole authorization for challenges to allegedly unlawful confinement. Id., at 489-490. At the time of §1983's adoption, the federal habeas statute mirrored the common-law writ of habeas corpus, in that it authorized a single form of relief: the prisoner's immediate release from custody. See Act of Feb. 5, 1867, §1, 14 Stat. 386. Congress shortly thereafter amended the statute, authorizing federal habeas courts to "dispose of the party as law and justice require," Rev. Stat. §761. The statute reads virtually the same today, 28 U. S. C. §2243 ("dispose of the matter as law and justice require"). We have interpreted this broader remedial language to permit relief short of release. For example, when a habeas petitioner challenges only one of several consecutive sentences, the court may invalidate the challenged sentence even though the prisoner remains in custody to serve the others. See Peyton v. Rowe, 391 U. S. 54, 67 (1968); Walker v. Wainwright, 390 U. S. 335, 336-337 (1968) (per curiam). Thus, in Preiser we held the prisoners' §1983 action barred because the relief it sought -- restoration of good-time credits, which would shorten the prisoners' incarceration and hasten the date on which they would be transferred to supervised release -- was available in habeas. See 411 U. S., at 487-488.

[49] It is one thing to say that permissible habeas relief, as our cases interpret the statute, includes ordering a "quantum change in the level of custody," Graham v. Broglin, 922 F. 2d 379, 381 (CA7 1991) (Posner, J.), such as release from incarceration to parole. It is quite another to say that the habeas statute authorizes federal courts to order relief that neither terminates custody, accelerates the future date of release from custody, nor reduces the level of custody. That is what is sought here: the mandating of a new parole hearing that may or may not result in release, prescription of the composition of the hearing panel, and specification of the procedures to be followed. A holding that this sort of judicial immersion in the administration of discretionary parole lies at the "core of habeas" would utterly sever the writ from its common-law roots. Cf. Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U. S. 520, 526, n. 6 (1979) (treating as open the question whether prison-conditions claims are cognizable in habeas). The dissent suggests that because a habeas court may issue a conditional writ ordering a prisoner released unless the State conducts a new sentencing proceeding, the court may also issue a conditional writ ordering release absent a new parole proceeding. See post, at 2-3, 4 (opinion of Kennedy, J.). But the prisoner who shows that his sentencing was unconstitutional is actually entitled to release, because the judgment pursuant to which he is confined has been invalidated; the conditional writ serves only to "delay the release ... in order to provide the State an opportunity to correct the constitutional violation." Hilton v. Braunskill, 481 U. S. 770, 775 (1987); see In re Bonner, 151 U. S. 242, 259, 262 (1894) (conditional writ for proper resentencing). By contrast, the validly sentenced prisoner who shows only that the State made a procedural error in denying discretionary parole has not established a right to release, and so cannot obtain habeas relief -- conditional or otherwise. Conditional writs enable habeas courts to give States time to replace an invalid judgment with a valid one, and the consequence when they fail to do so is always release. Conditional writs are not an all-purpose weapon with which federal habeas courts can extort from the respondent custodian forms of relief short of release, whether a new parole hearing or a new mattress in the applicant's cell.

[50] Petitioners counter that we need not be concerned about this expansion of habeas relief because prisoners will naturally prefer §1983 to habeas corpus, in light of the burdensome prerequisites attached to habeas relief by 28 U. S. C. §2254. But those prerequisites, such as exhaustion of state remedies, reliance on "clearly established Federal law," and deference to previous findings of fact, apply only to "a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court," §§2254(b)(1), (d)(1), (e)(1). By contrast, §2243's delineation of the scope of permissible relief applies to all federal habeas proceedings, whether the petitioner is in federal or state custody, see §2241(c). Thus, while §2254 may shield petitioners and their fellow state wardens from the impact of the broadened writ they urge us to create, not every warden responding to a habeas petition can claim the same protection. And federal prisoners, whose custodians are not acting under color of state law and hence cannot be sued under §1983, have greater incentives to shoehorn their claims into habeas.

[51] Finally, I note that the Court's opinion focuses correctly on whether the claims respondents pleaded were claims that may be pursued in habeas -- not on whether respondents can be successful in obtaining habeas relief on those claims. See, e.g., ante, at 6. Thus, for example, a prisoner who wishes to challenge the length of his confinement, but who cannot obtain federal habeas relief because of the statute of limitations or the restrictions on successive petitions, §§2244(a), (b), (d), cannot use the unavailability of federal habeas relief in his individual case as grounds for proceeding under §1983. Cf. Preiser, supra, at 489-490 ("It would wholly frustrate explicit congressional intent to hold that [state prisoners] could evade [the exhaustion] requirement by the simple expedient of putting a different label on their pleadings").

[52] With these observations, I join the Court's opinion.

[53] Kennedy, J., dissenting

[54] Justice Kennedy, dissenting.

[55] In this case, the Court insists that an attack on parole proceedings brought under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U. S. C. §1983, may not be dismissed on the grounds that habeas corpus is the exclusive remedy for such claims. The primary reason offered for the Court's holding is that an order entitling a prisoner to a new parole proceeding might not result in his early release. That reason, however, applies with equal logic and force to a sentencing proceeding. And since it is elementary that habeas is the appropriate remedy for challenging a sentence, something must be quite wrong with the Court's own first premise.

[56] Everyone knows that when a prisoner succeeds in a habeas action and obtains a new sentencing hearing, the sentence may or may not be reduced. The sentence can end up being just the same, or perhaps longer. The prisoner's early release is by no means assured simply because the first sentence was found unlawful. Yet no one would say that an attack on judicial sentencing proceedings following conviction may be raised through an action under §1983. The inconsistency in the Court's treatment of sentencing proceedings and parole proceedings is thus difficult to justify. It is, furthermore, in tension with our precedents. For these reasons, I write this respectful dissent.

[57] Challenges to parole proceedings are cognizable in habeas. Here respondents challenge parole determinations that not only deny release (or eligibility for consideration for release) but also guarantee continued confinement until the next scheduled parole proceeding. See ante, at 1-2 (majority opinion). If a parole determination is made in a proceeding flawed by errors of constitutional dimensions, as these respondents now allege, their continued confinement may well be the result of constitutional violation. Respondents thus raise a cognizable habeas claim of being "in custody in violation of the Constitution." 28 U. S. C. §2241(c)(3); see also 1 R. Hertz & J. Liebman, Federal Habeas Corpus Practice and Procedure §9.1, pp. 431-437, and n. 33 (4th ed. 2001) (noting that "[t]he range of claims cognizable in federal habeas corpus" includes challenges to "the duration of sentence (including on the basis of parole, good time, and other prison-or administratively, as opposed to court-administered rules)" and citing numerous cases to that effect). In recognition of this elementary principle, this Court and the courts of appeals have adjudicated the merits of many parole challenges in federal habeas corpus proceedings. See, e.g., California Dept. of Corrections v. Morales, 514 U. S. 499 (1995); Mickens-Thomas v. Vaughn, 321 F. 3d 374 (CA3 2003); Nulph v. Faatz, 27 F. 3d 451 (CA9 1994) (per curiam); Fender v. Thompson, 883 F. 2d 303 (CA4 1989).

[58] My concerns with the Court's holding are increased, not diminished, by the fact that the Court does not seem to deny that respondents' claims indeed could be cognizable in habeas corpus proceedings. Justice Scalia's concurring opinion suggests otherwise, because respondents seek a form of relief (new parole hearings) unavailable in habeas. Ante, at 2. But the common practice of granting a conditional writ -- ordering that a State release the prisoner or else correct the constitutional error through a new hearing -- already allows a habeas court to compel the type of relief Justice Scalia supposes to be unavailable. See Hilton v. Braunskill, 481 U. S. 770, 775 (1987) ("Federal habeas corpus practice, as reflected by the decisions of this Court, indicates that a court has broad discretion in conditioning a judgment granting habeas relief").

[59] Because habeas is available for parole challenges like respondents', Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U. S. 475 (1973), thus requires a holding that it also provides the exclusive vehicle for them. In Preiser, the Court held that challenges to "the very fact or duration of [a prisoner's] confinement," as opposed to "the conditions of ... prison life," must be brought in habeas, not under 42 U. S. C. §1983. 411 U. S., at 499-500. The language of §1983, to be sure, is capacious enough to include a challenge to the fact or duration of confinement; Preiser, nonetheless, established that because habeas is the most specific applicable remedy it should be the exclusive means for raising the challenge. Id., at 489. Respondents' challenges to adverse parole system determinations relate not at all to conditions of confinement but rather to the fact and duration of confinement. See Butterfield v. Bail, 120 F. 3d 1023, 1024 (CA9 1997) ("[A] challenge to the procedures used in the denial of parole necessarily implicates the validity of the denial of parole and, therefore, the prisoner's continuing confinement"). Straightforward application of Preiser and the cases after it would yield the conclusion that these claims must be brought in habeas.

[60] The majority's contrary holding, permitting parole determination challenges to go forward under §1983, is not based on any argument that these claims should be characterized as challenges to conditions of confinement rather than to its fact or duration. That argument is unavailable to the Court. The majority must say instead that respondents' claims do not fall into the " `core of habeas.' " Ante, at 8. For this, it gives two reasons.

[61] The first is that success on the claims will not necessarily entitle respondents to immediate release. Ante, at 7. This, as noted at the very outset, proves far too much. If the Court's line of reasoning is sound, it would remove from the "core of habeas" any challenge to an unconstitutional sentencing procedure.

[62] The second reason, that success on the claims does not necessarily imply the invalidity of respondents' convictions or sentences, ante, at 7-8, is both misplaced and irrelevant. It is misplaced, because it takes out of context the test employed in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U. S. 477 (1994), and in Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U. S. 641 (1997). In both those cases there was a temptation to seek only relief unavailable in habeas, such as damages (and declaratory relief serving as a predicate to damages), and thus to do an end run around Preiser. Heck, supra, at 481; Balisok, supra, at 643-644; see also Muhammad v. Close, 540 U. S. 749 (2004) (per curiam) (recognizing that damages are unavailable in habeas). Today's case does not present that problem. The fact that respondents' claims do not impugn the validity of their convictions or sentences is also irrelevant. True, respondents' contentions have nothing to do with their original state-court convictions or sentencing determinations. Stating this fact, however, gets the Court no closer to resolving whether parole determinations themselves are subject to direct challenge only in habeas. That is why we have held that administrative decisions denying good-time credits are subject to attack only in habeas. Preiser, supra, at 477, 500; Balisok, supra, at 643-644.

[63] The Court makes it a point to cite a sentence fragment from Close, observing that " `the incarceration that matters under Heck is the incarceration ordered by the original judgment of conviction,' " ante, at 9 (quoting 540 U. S., at 751, n. 1). That statement, however, is inapplicable even on its own terms, because it addresses the Heck problem, not this one. Furthermore, even apart from Heck's inapplicability to this case, the full sentence from which the majority takes the quotation makes clear that the Court in Close was contrasting confinement per se with "special disciplinary confinement for infraction of prison rules," 540 U. S., at 751, n. 1. That simply is not at issue here. In sum, neither of the majority's stated principles can justify its deviation from the holding Preiser demands.

[64] Today's ruling blurs the Preiser formulation. It is apparent that respondents' challenges relate not at all to conditions of confinement but solely to its duration. Notwithstanding Preiser's direction that challenges to the fact or duration of confinement should be restricted to habeas, the Court's decision will allow numerous §1983 challenges to state parole system determinations that do relate solely to the duration of the prisoners' confinement.

[65] It is unsurprising, then, that 18 States have filed an amicus brief joining with Ohio in urging the opposite result, see Brief for Alabama et al. as Amici Curiae. Today's decision allows state prisoners raising parole challenges to circumvent the state courts. Compare 28 U. S. C. §2254(b)(1)(A) (providing that a person in custody pursuant to a state-court judgment must in general exhaust all "remedies available in the courts of the State" before seeking federal habeas relief) with 42 U. S. C. §1997e(a) (requiring only that a prisoner exhaust administrative remedies before bringing a §1983 action to challenge "prison conditions"). Parole systems no doubt have variations from State to State. It is within the special province and expertise of the state courts to address challenges to their own state parole determinations in the first instance, particularly because many challenges raise state procedural questions. Today the Court, over the objection of many States, deprives the federal courts of the invaluable assistance and frontline expertise found in the state courts.

[66] For the reasons given above, I would reverse.