Constitutional Remedies (Update)

views updated


The 1990s began with missouri v. jenkins's (1990) 5–4 affirmation of federal judicial power to remedy constitutional violations. The case sustained federal court power to promote local tax increases to fund desegregation orders. Proposed constitutional amendments and legislation abrogating the decision failed to gain adequate support. And in Crawford-El v. Britton (1998), the Supreme Court, in a 5–4 decision, refused to require civil rights plaintiffs to adduce clear and convincing evidence of improper motive, a heightened level of proof, to avoid dismissal of constitutional claims that depend on the defendant's motive.

Most developments in the 1990s, however, curtailed vindication of constitutional rights, especially for prisoners. The Federal Courts Improvement Act of 1996 amended section 1983, title 42, united states code to limit actions alleging constitutional violations by state judges. It prohibits injunctive relief against judicial officers unless a declaratory judgment has been violated or declaratory relief is unavailable. It thus limits the Court's allowance in Pulliam v. Allen (1984) of injunctive relief against judges. The same Act also limits attorney fee awards against judges to cases in which the judge's actions are "clearly in excess" of the judge's jurisdiction, a standard that precludes fee awards in most cases.

The antiterrorism and effective death penalty act of 1996 capped years of efforts by conservatives to curtail federal habeas corpus. It limits the ability of prisoners to file repeat habeas petitions; imposes firmer deadlines for the filing of habeas petitions; and limits prison institutional reform litigation. The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 echoes the same themes and further curtails the rights of prisoners to assert constitutional violations. It limits the circumstances under which courts may enter injunctions against unconstitutional prison conditions, including overcrowding and inadequate medical care. It also addresses the alleged problem of frivolous prisoner litigation by curtailing the authority of impoverished prisoners to file lawsuits without paying filing fees.

Ironically, data from the federal courts suggest that the aggressive statutory antiprisoner program was based in part on myth. No long-term increase in prisoner litigiousness is perceptible from the mid-1970s to the 1990s. Increases in prisoner filings can be explained by increases in the prison population, not by more filings per prisoner.

Court decisions also restricted the opportunities of prisoners to assert constitutional violations. Wilson v. Seiter (1991) held that prisoners claiming that prison conditions violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel or unusual punishment must establish that prison officials had a culpable state of mind. But in Farmer v. Brennan (1994), the Court acknowledged that the Eighth Amendment requires prison officials to maintain minimally humane prison conditions. In Heck v. Humphrey (1994), the Court restricted the power of prisoners to challenge the constitutionality of their convictions under section 1983. A state prisoner has no cause of action under section 1983 unless the conviction is first invalidated by the grant of a writ of habeas corpus.

Actions against prosecutors are one area in which federal decisions did not curtail constitutional remedies. Burns v. Reed (1991), Buckley v. Fitzsimmons (1993), and Kalina v. Fletcher (1997) all tend to limit the absolute immunity of prisoners to acts directly related to the prosecution of cases, and to deny immunity for investigative or other prosecutorial activities.

Theodore Eisenberg

(see also: Immunity of Public Officials; Prisoners' Rights.)


Eisenberg, Theodore 1996 Civil Rights Legislation, 4th ed. Charlottesville, Virginia: Michie.

Tushnet, Mark and Yackle, Larry 1997 Symbolic Statutes and Real Laws: The Pathologies of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Prison Litigation Reform Act. Duke Law Journal 47:1–86.

About this article

Constitutional Remedies (Update)

Updated About content Print Article


Constitutional Remedies (Update)