WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday made it harder for prisoners to file lawsuits that challenge disciplinary measures, ruling that an inmate can be sent to solitary confinement without a full hearing.
Speaking for the 5-4 majority, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said that federal judges should not be involved "in the day-to-day management" of prisons and should give wardens more flexibility in handling "the ordinary incidents of prison life."
The conservative court majority, ruling in a case brought by an inmate in Hawaii, was almost certainly reacting to reports that the number of lawsuits from prisoners has soared in recent years as more inmates have claimed that a failure to follow a particular written procedure denies them their constitutional rights to "due process of law."
For example, inmates have contended that a failure to provide cable television, a pocket dictionary or a prison job violates their rights. In 1993, more than 33,000 lawsuits were filed by state inmates in federal courts, a fivefold increase since 1977.
Raising the threshold for new lawsuits, Rehnquist said that judges should not hear such claims unless a punishment or restriction "imposes atypical and significant hardship on the inmate." Confinement in a lockup area removed from other prisoners is not a "significant deprivation" and could be normally expected as a punishment for misconduct, the chief justice added.
Monday's decision reverses a more liberal standard set by the U.S. 9th Circuit of Appeals in San Francisco.
Lawyers who follow prison litigation predict that the high court ruling will significantly reduce new claims.
"It is refreshing to see our nation's highest court recognizing that too many lawsuits filed by prisoners are frivolous and are a waste of taxpayers' money," said California Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, who filed a brief in support of Hawaii's prison administrators.
USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who helped represent the Hawaiian inmate, agreed that the ruling could have a broad impact.
"If Rehnquist's opinion means what it seems to suggest, it could be a devastating blow for prisoners' rights," Chemerinsky said. "It's significant because these inmates have nowhere else to turn for protection but the federal courts."
DeMont Conner was behind bars in a maximum security prison in central Oahu in 1987. He had been convicted of attempted murder, kidnaping and robbery. Before he could meet with a religious counselor, he was told that he would be strip searched.
Conner complained loudly and shouted curses at the guards. For this he was called before a prison board and charged with misconduct.
Though he had a chance to rebut the charges, he was not permitted to call witnesses who, he said, could prove his innocence. Afterward, he was put in a special lockup for 30 days.
Conner filed a lawsuit in federal court in Honolulu contending that the confinement violated his right to "liberty" and that the brief hearing did not amount to "due process of law." He sought damages from Cinda Sandin, the official in charge of the hearing board. Ruling in his favor, the 9th Circuit Court agreed that the inmate "had a liberty interest, protected by the 14th Amendment, in not being arbitrarily placed in disciplinary segregation."
Disagreeing in the case (Sandin vs. Conner, 93-1911), Rehnquist said that routine restrictions on prisoners, even "punitive" actions for misconduct, do not trigger a constitutional right. Such claims in lawsuits should be dismissed without a hearing, he said in an opinion joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.