On Monday, the Supreme Court begins its final week of planned hearings in the current term. The first hearing will examine the right to appeal in a case about prison inmates’ rights. A second hearing is a test of the independent legal status of Indian tribes.
The Court will broadcast “live” the audio (no video) of the hearings on its homepage, supremecourt.gov To listen, click on “Live Audio” and follow the prompt when the courtroom scene appears lower on the page. The audio also will be available, under the title of each case, on C-Span TV at this link: cspan.org/supremecourt
First hearing Monday: Dupree v. Younger. Scheduled for one hour, the hearing begins at 10 a.m.
Background: The Supreme Court’s years under Chief Justice Earl Warren brought a revolution in the rights of people accused of crime. Decision after decision expanded those rights. One result was that prison inmates had repeated opportunities to take advantage of those rulings by returning to court to challenge their guilty verdicts or their sentences.
The rise of a conservative legal movement in the 1980s brought a strong reaction, and part of that was an effort to curtail those multiple challenges. The Supreme Court, with new conservative Justices named by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, joined in the reaction, narrowing the rights of prisoners to return to court frequently.
Inmates in state prisons or local jails, who complain of violations of their constitutional rights, are allowed by an 1871 civil rights law (widely known as “Section 1983”) to sue wardens or guards, seeking money damages. The law was intended to enforce the then-new Fourteenth
Amendment, and its promise that governments would follow fair procedures (“due process”).
But, in 1995, as part of the conservative trend in full swing by that time, Congress put several limits on the right to file such lawsuits in federal courts: one new law was the Prison Litigation Reform Act. A key part of that law requires prisoners with legal complaints to pursue those first in any internal grievance process (technically, “exhaust their remedies”) before they could sue.
If a prisoner sues without doing that first, the other side can seek to have the lawsuit dismissed before it could go to trial. It is the legal duty of the other side, the party sued, to raise that issue, according to prior Supreme Court precedent.
In the case the Court will hear first on Monday, the issue is how the party sued – in this case, a prison supervisor – is to take that step.
The facts of this case: In September 2013, Kevin Younger was being held in a state prison in Baltimore, awaiting trial on a criminal charge (not specified in the Court’s files).
While there, he was accused of assaulting a guard. One day later, three guards went to his cell, finding him asleep. They pulled him out of bed, threw him to the floor and assaulted him with blows that left him unconscious and bleeding heavily. (These facts came out later when the guards were tried and convicted for the assault.) The incident led to the warden’s resignation.
Younger was moved to another prison and attempted, unsuccessfully, to pursue claims within the prison grievance system. Three years after the assault, he filed a civil rights lawsuit under the 1871 law, claiming excessive force by the guards and a prison supervisor, Neil Dupree. The lawsuit accused Dupree of ordering the assault after Younger’s attack on a guard the day before.
Dupree’s lawyers sought to end the lawsuit before trial, contending that Younger had not pursued his grievance within the system. A federal court judge rejected that plea, finding that an internal investigation of the assault prevented a review of any grievance by Younger.
Younger’s case went to trial and resulted in a jury verdict of $700,000 against Dupree and the guards. At no point during the trial or at its end did Dupree raise again the issue about the grievance process. He did, however, seek to appeal the verdict. A federal appeals court ruled that he had forfeited his right to appeal by failing to keep alive the point about grievance procedures.
Dupree appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that lower federal courts are split on the right to appeal in the situation that unfolded in his case.
The question before the Court: If a prison official is sued for violating an inmate’s rights but fails to press the defense that the inmate bypassed a procedural requirement, does the official forfeit the right to appeal a verdict in the prisoner’s favor?
Significance: This case has a complex set of facts and a variety of competing legal concepts, but comes down to the question of whether someone who has been sued and loses cannot appeal after failing to raise at the right time a procedural requirement.
Longstanding legal principles seek to ensure that a federal appeals court only hears an appeal from a trial court ruling that has reached a decision in final form. That limitation helps clarify what is genuinely at stake and helps prevent federal cases from being handled in piecemeal fashion, stretching out the process and creating uncertainty.
Although this case has a narrow focus, it still could result in important guidance on the finality doctrine. It also could provide more clarity on the handling of prisoners’ rights cases under the 1995 law governing those lawsuits.
Second hearing Monday: Lac du Flambeau Band v. Coughlin This hearing will begin after the prison case is finished; it is scheduled for one hour.
Background: One of the most unusual features about America’s governing system is that Indian tribes exist as separate nations, constitutionally recognized as sovereign in their own realms. But their sovereignty is not absolute: the Constitution gives Congress vast power, both to oversee tribal life but also to act as the tribes’ guardian and protector.
The Supreme Court, with considerable frequency, has a major role in interpreting what Congress has done in that role.
That is what is at issue in the second hearing on Monday. It is a case about bankruptcy, the legal system that allows people who find they can’t pay their debts to be forgiven at least some of those so they can make a fresh start. It is one of the most basic “safety nets” for vulnerable Americans. This case, for example, is a controversy about a debt of only $1,100.
The dispute tests the meaning of two parts of the Constitution that have existed from the nation’s beginning in 1789. Article I assigns to Congress the power “to establish uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcy throughout the United States.” That Article also gives Congress the authority “to regulate commerce with the Indian tribes.”
When Congress enacted a sweeping reform of the U.S. bankruptcy code in 1978, it wanted to make sure that state governments would abide by obligations imposed by the code when people who do business with those governments owe them debts and can’t pay. (One debt that governments can collect even from a bankrupt person are taxes. Those must somehow be paid, perhaps by forfeiting property.)
Congress had to make states’ duty clear because those governments generally have immunity, as sovereigns, to being sued without their consent. States were treated as sovereign entities under the pre-Constitution Articles of Confederation, which declared that each colony “retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence.” They had to give up some, but not all, of their sovereignty when the new national government was created.
Indian tribes also existed, and were sovereign, before the Constitution, and the document retained that – subject to limitation by Congress. Tribes, like states, can have their sovereignty taken away (“abrogated”) by act of Congress.
The 1978 law reforming bankruptcy law specified that it applied to “governmental units.” It specifically listed examples, including state governments, then concluded with a catch-all phrase, “other foreign and domestic governments.” It does not specifically mention Indian tribal governments.
Facts of this case: The Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians is a tribe officially recognized by the federal government. It occupies lands in north central Wisconsin in the “Great Northwoods” region. The tribe has been there since 1745; its reservation was first established by an 1837 treaty.
Its name is French for “Lake of the Torches,” derived from the tribe’s practice of fishing at night with torchlight – thus “Lake of the Torches.”
Among other businesses, the tribe operates a gambling casino and a firm, named Lendgreen, which makes short-term loans to consumers. In July 2019, that firm loaned $1,100 to a Massachusetts man, Brent W. Coughlin. (It was a “payday loan,” the kind that usually charges high interest because of the risk to the lender.) Coughlin arranged for the loan on the Internet. He has said that he was charged interest at an annual rate of 107.9 percent.
Finding himself unable to repay the loan, he filed for bankruptcy in a federal court in Massachusetts. By that time, his loan balance stood at $1,600. Under bankruptcy law, the filing of such a lawsuit automatically puts on hold loans like this one. Despite that, Coughlin contends, the tribe repeatedly pressed him by telephone and e-mail to make payments. He asked the court to order the tribe to stop while the case was pending.
The tribe answered the lawsuit by arguing that, as a sovereign, it was immune to the bankruptcy law and that Congress had not abrogated that in 1978. A federal appeals court ruled against the tribe, concluding that the catch-all phrase meant to include tribal governments.
The tribe appealed to the Supreme Court, noting that lower federal courts were split on the issue. The Justice Department joined in the case, taking the position that Congress must act clearly and unequivocally to strip tribes of immunity, but arguing that it had done so here.
Significance: Sovereignty is an age-old legal concept, originating in the “divine right” of kings to do no wrong. That concept is carried over into the Constitution’s grant of Congress to pass laws that become “the supreme law of the land,” including the power to set aside legal immunity.
Congress could resolve this dispute with the Wisconsin tribe by passing a law to specifically include Indian tribes, or to exempt them. It has not done so, leaving it to the courts, and they now have split on the question.
One of the tribe’s main arguments is that Congress has never passed a law that affects tribal sovereignty without explicitly declaring its intention. Coughlin, supported by the federal government, says the 1978 law is clear enough in stripping the tribe of immunity.
The Court could decide this case either by focusing only on the law’s language, or it could reach into the Constitution to decide for or against tribal immunity based on how it interprets Article I’s two provisions – bankruptcy and oversight of tribal government.
On Tuesday, the Court will explore the recurring question of whether U.S. laws can be enforced in U.S. courts by a foreign individual or firm when the dispute takes place mostly overseas. A single hearing is scheduled.