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No Writ Of Mandamus When Other Remedies Exist

The U.S. Supreme Court held that parties seeking issuance of writ of
mandamus must show that there is no other way to gain the desired relief.
California prisoners filed a class action suit alleging constitutional
violations in the way sentence lengths and conditions of punishment are
determined by the Adult Authority. The prisoners sought injunctive and
declatory relief. In discovery the prisoners requested Adult Authority
personnel files and prisoner files for every twentieth prisoner in state
prison. Adult Authority claimed personnel files were confidential and
requested in camera inspection before any court order. U.S. district court
ordered release of files without in camera inspection. Adult Authority
filed writ of mandamus with the court of appeals for the Ninth circuit
requesting that they vacate the district court order. The court of appeals
denied the request, 511 F.2d 192. On certiorari, the U.S. Supreme Court
affirmed the Ninth circuit decision denying the writ of mandamus. They
held that all other alternatives should be exhausted before a writ of
mandamus is issued and that less extreme means of obtaining the desired
relief existed in this case. See index for additional cites in this case.
See: Kerr v. United States Dist. Ct. For N. Dist. Of Cal: 426 U.S. 394, 96
S.Ct. 2119, 48 L.Ed.2d 725 (1976).

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Related legal case

Kerr v. United States Dist. Ct. for N. Dist. Of Ca



[2] No. 74-1023

[3] 96 S. Ct. 2119, 426 U.S. 394, 48 L. Ed. 2d 725, 1976

[4] June 14, 1976



[7] Karl S. Mayer, Deputy Attorney General of California, argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Evelle J. Younger, Attorney General, Jack R. Winkler, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Derald E. Granberg, John T. Murphy, Jean M. Bordon, Deputy Attorneys General, and Edward P. O'Brien, Assistant Attorney General.

[8] B. E. Bergesen III argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief was Sidney M. Wolinsky.

[9] Burger, Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist; Stevens took no part in the consideration or decision in the case

[10] Author: Marshall

[ 426 U.S. Page 395]

[11] MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

[12] Petitioners, defendants in a class action, sought issuance of writs of mandamus from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to compel the District Court to vacate two discovery orders. The Court of Appeals refused to issue the writs. We hold that in the circumstances of this case - and particularly in light of

[ 426 U.S. Page 396]

the availability of an alternative, less extreme, path to modification of the challenged discovery orders - issuance of the writ is inappropriate. We therefore affirm.

[13] I

[14] Seven prisoners in the custody of the Department of Corrections of the State of California filed a class action in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California on behalf of themselves and "on behalf of all adult male felons who now are, as well as all adult male felons who in the future will be, in the custody of the California Department of Corrections, whether confined in an institution operated by the Department or on parole." App. 370.*fn1 Among the defendants in the action are petitioners in this case: the individual members of the California Adult Authority, the Administrative Officer of the California Adult Authority, and the Director of Corrections of the State of California. Plaintiffs' complaint alleges substantial constitutional violations in the manner in which the California Adult Authority carries out its function of determining the length and conditions of punishment for convicted criminal offenders.

[15] In the course of discovery, plaintiffs submitted requests for the production of a number of documents pursuant to Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 34. Petitioners' subsequent two petitions for writs of mandamus were concerned with two classes of documents that were part of these requests. The first class, part of a series of requests first made in June 1973, and which will be referred to here as the "Adult Authority files," is generally composed of the personnel files of all members and employees of the Adult Authority, all Adult Authority

[ 426 U.S. Page 397]

documents relating to its past, present, or future operation, and all memoranda written by the Chairman of the Adult Authority within the preceding five years.*fn2 The second class of documents with which we are concerned was first requested by plaintiffs in November 1973,

[ 426 U.S. Page 398]

and will be referred to here as the "prisoners' files." Plaintiffs requested the opportunity to examine the files of every twentieth inmate at each California Department of Corrections institution, App. 234; the class of documents, therefore, is composed of the correctional files of a sample of the prisoners in the custody of the California Department of Corrections.

[16] When presented with the request for the Adult Authority files, petitioners objected, claiming that the files were irrelevant, confidential, and privileged, and suggesting that they should not be required to turn over the files to plaintiffs without prior in camera review by the District Court to evaluate the claims of privilege. Plaintiffs moved, pursuant to Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 37, for an order compelling discovery. App. 76. The District Court referred the matter to a Magistrate for findings and recommendations, and the Magistrate recommended that the District Court order production of the Adult Authority files without undertaking an in camera inspection of the files. The District Court accepted the Magistrate's recommendations and ordered the production of the documents. Seeking to limit distribution of the personnel files of the Adult Authority members and their employees, however, the District Court issued a protective order limiting the number of people associated with the plaintiffs who could examine those documents:

[17] "[N] o personnel file of any member of the Adult Authority, hearing representative or executive officer, nor any copy of any of its contents, shall be shown to any person except counsel of record for the plaintiffs and no more than a total of two investigators designated by such counsel, and then only to the extent necessary to the conduct of this action." Pet. for Cert. xvi.

[ 426 U.S. Page 399]

Dissatisfied with the District Court's ruling, petitioners filed a petition for a writ of mandamus under 28 U.S.C. § 1651(a),*fn3 requesting the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to vacate the District Court's order granting plaintiffs' motion to compel discovery. The Court of Appeals denied the petition in an opinion filed on January 17, 1975.511 F.2d 192. It concluded first that since "the question of relevancy 'is to be more loosely construed at the discovery stage than at the trial,' 8 Wright & Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure, § 2008 at 41 (1970)," issuance of the writ on the grounds of the asserted irrelevance of the documents in question was inappropriate. Id., at 196. According to the Court of Appeals, discovery of the documents was part of "a proper line of attack" in the underlying lawsuit. Ibid. The court went on to observe that petitioners had no absolute privilege that would allow them to avoid production of the documents at issue. The court did recognize, however, the existence of a qualified common-law governmental privilege "encompassing and referred to sometimes as the official or state secret privilege," id., at 198, that could conceivably cover the requested documents. But relying on this Court's decision in United States v. Reynolds,345 U.S. 1 (1953), the Court of Appeals indicated that because the assertions of privilege were not personally made by high-level officials of the California Adult Authority and because the assertions of privilege were lacking in what it saw to be the requisite specificity, issuance of the writ on grounds of privilege was inappropriate:

[18] "Neither the Chairman of the [Adult] Authority

[ 426 U.S. Page 400]

nor the Director of Corrections nor any official of these agencies asserted, in person or writing, any privilege in the district court.

[19] "The claiming official must '"have seen and considered the contents of the documents and himself have formed the view that on grounds of public interest they ought not to be produced"' [ United States v. Reynolds,345 U.S., at 8 n. 20, quoting from Duncan v. Cammell, Laird & Co., [1942] A.C. 624, 638,] and state with specificity the rationale of the claimed privilege.... S

[20] "In [this] suit, petitioners' counsel merely raised a blanket objection covering any and all documents in request numbers 7, 14, 15, 18, 20, 21 and 22. Formally claiming a privilege should involve specifying which documents or class of documents are privileged and for what reasons, especially where the nature of the requested documents does not reveal an obviously privileged matter....

[21] "In sum, the petition fails to show such an [ sic] usurpation by the district court that warrants the extraordinary remedy of writ of mandamus."511 F.2d, at 198-199.I

[22] A similar course was followed with regard to the requests for the prisoners' files. When petitioners, asserting grounds of privilege, objected to the requests, plaintiffs filed a motion to compel production which the District Court referred for findings and recommendations to a Magistrate. The Magistrate recommended that petitioners be required to produce up to 200 prisoner files subject to a protective order "that would restrict examination and inspection of inmate files to attorneys for plaintiffs and for their use only in connection with this lawsuit." Pet. for Cert. xl. The District Court accepted the Magistrate's recommendation, but added to the recommended

[ 426 U.S. Page 401]

protective order a requirement that no prisoner's file be turned over for examination without the inmate's consent. Id., at xxxi, xxxiii. Petitioners then filed a petition for mandamus which the Court of Appeals denied by order and without opinion on December 18, 1974. Id., at xxiii.

[23] Petitioners sought review in this Court of the denial of both petitions.*fn4 We granted certiorari.*fn5 421 U.S. 987 (1975).

[ 426 U.S. Page 402]


[24] The remedy of mandamus is a drastic one, to be invoked only in extraordinary situations. Will v. United States, 389 U.S. 90, 95 (1967); Bankers Life & Cas. Co. v. Holland, 346 U.S. 379, 382-385 (1953); Ex parte Fahey, 332 U.S. 258, 259 (1947). As we have observed, the writ "has traditionally been used in the federal courts only 'to confine an inferior court to a lawful exercise of its prescribed jurisdiction or to compel it to exercise its authority when it is its duty to do so.'" Will v. United States, supra, at 95, quoting Roche v. Evaporated Milk Assn.,319 U.S. 21, 26 (1943). And, while we have not limited the use of mandamus by an unduly narrow and technical understanding of what constitutes a matter of "jurisdiction," Will v. United States, supra, at 95, the fact still remains that "only exceptional circumstances amounting to a judicial 'usurpation of power' will justify the invocation of this extraordinary remedy." Ibid.

[25] Our treatment of mandamus within the federal court system as an extraordinary remedy is not without good reason. As we have recognized before, mandamus actions such as the one involved in the instant case "have the unfortunate consequence of making the [district court] judge a litigant, obliged to obtain personal counsel or to leave his defense to one of the litigants [appearing] before him" in the underlying case. Bankers Life & Cas. Co. v. Holland, supra, at 384-385,

[ 426 U.S. Page 403]