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Supreme Court Decision Update - Beard v. Banks

supreme1.jpgIn Beard v. Banks (PDF of the opinion), the Supremes take a look at prisoners’ rights, specifically, whether a prison that keeps newspapers and magazines from dangerous and recalcitrant prisoners is violating the First Amendment (the First Amendment is implicated by such a policy because it includes the right to receive and have access to public information).

QuizLaw Analysis: Yet again, we’re learning that the Roberts Court isn’t as united as it appeared earlier this term, as we again have no majority opinion (and just wait until you see the Texas redistricting case). We do have a 5-3 judgment that the prison policy doesn’t violate a prisoner’s First Amendment rights which means that, ultimately, this decision gives prisons the okay to deprive prisoners of rights they might otherwise have as free men, as long as there’s a prison-related reason for doing so.

Pennsylvania has something it calls the Long Term Segregation Unit, a special prison unit for the state’s most dangerous and recalcitrant convicts. There are about 40 inmates there, making up two different levels - the more restrictive Level 2 and the less restrictive Level 1. Level 2 prisoners are the most restricted prisoners in the state - they are typically stuck in their cells for 23 hours a day, they have no commissary access, they only get one visitor per month, they get no phone calls but for emergencies and, important for this case, they are denied access to any newspapers, magazines or personal photographs. In 2001, a Level 2 inmate, Ronald Banks, filed a federal lawsuit against the Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections, claiming that the magazine/newspaper/photo ban violated the First Amendment because it had no reasonable relation to a legitimate prison interest. During discovery in the case, prison policy manuals and related documents were entered into the court record. The Secretary then filed a summary judgment motion, which included a “Statement of Material Facts Not in Dispute” (a standard pleading filed with summary judgment motions) and a copy of a deposition of the deputy superintendent of the prison. Banks didn’t file an opposition to the summary judgment motion or challenge any of the facts put into the record, but filed his own cross-motion for summary judgment relying upon the same undisputed facts and claiming that they supported his position. The District Court granted the Secretary’s motion and denied Banks’ motion, but the Third Circuit overturned this ruling. The Third Circuit panel found that, as a matter of law, the prison regulation could not be upheld.

As mentioned above, we have no majority opinion in this case. What we have is a plurality opinion penned by Justice Breyer and joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy and Souter. Breyer reverses the Third Circuit and remands the case, finding that the evidentiary record provides enough legal support for the prison policy and that Banks failed to offer any facts supporting a different outcome. Breyer begins by noting that, while constitutional rights can’t be deprived just because someone is in jail, there are situations when a prisoner’s constitutional rights can be deprived. Where a prison regulation that deprives rights is “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests,” it is not a violation of the Constitution or of a prisoner’s rights. So the question here is simply whether the evidentiary record establishes such relation. While the Secretary offers several justifications for the prison policy, Breyer focuses on one, the need to motivate difficult prisoners to behave better – the prison policy is okay as long as it is reasonably related to this issue. Breyer first looks at whether there’s simply a logical connection between the policy and this interest and, applying four factors, determines there is – the policy encourages inmates to behave well so that they can move up to Level 1 and regain some of these privileges, and it discourages bad behavior of Level 1 prisoners, who risk being demoted to Level 2 and losing their magazine and newspaper privileges.

Breyer now turns to the question at the heart of the matter, whether this logical relation is also a “reasonable” relation. In a prior case, the Court upheld the “severe” policy of restricting family visitation rights of prisoners with multiple violations of substance abuse policies and Breyer doesn’t see the newspaper/magazine ban as being significantly different from this policy. Both are about deprived rights with important constitutional elements, both involve deprivation of the rights of only the most seriously problematic prisoners, and both come from prison officials using their professional judgment to conclude that the policies are necessary. This is enough for Breyer, and he concludes that the policy is therefore reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest.

Breyer ends by turning to Banks and saying that Banks should’ve tried to fight the now-undisputed facts during the original filing of motions. The cases and statistics he now relies on don’t provide adequate support for his argument. And while the Third Circuit decided that Banks’ cases and statistics did support overturning the policy, Breyer says the Third Circuit “placed too high an evidentiary burden upon the Secretary,” essentially requiring the Secretary to prove that deprivation of rights has a psychological connection to improved behavior, and/or that the regulations actually offer incentives - the Third Circuit should’ve given more deference to the prison officials, as they’re the ones who know about these things. Based on all of the above, Breyer and the plurality therefore reverse the Third Circuit and remand the case.

Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia agree that the case should be reversed and remanded, bringing the tally to 5, and winning out the day. However, in a separate opinion written by Thomas, they take a different path to get to this judgment. Thomas says that “[j]udicial scrutiny of prison regulations is an endeavor fraught with peril.” Thus, he thinks review of prison policies should be done in a framework he proposed in a concurrence three years ago, rather than in the method employed by Breyer. The “reasonable relation” test, according to Thomas, comes from a faulty assumption that the Constitution has some implicit definition of incarceration. But since the Constitution doesn’t have any such definition, Thomas believes that states can define incarceration however they want and can deprive prisoners in any way that doesn’t violate the Eighth Amendment. And since Banks hasn’t claimed that this newspaper/magazine policy is an Eighth Amendment violation, it’s game over for Thomas (although he spends several more pages attacking the legal analysis applied by the Breyer plurality and the dissent just to emphasize the point that he thinks it sucks).

Justice Stevens, joined by Justice Ginsburg, dissents from the plurality on the basis that even the baddest of the bad have constitutional rights. Here, Stevens thinks the Secretary has failed to show that, as a matter of law, this policy is reasonably related to the prison’s interests and that the Third Circuit therefore got it right. Stevens doesn’t buy into any of the prisons’ reasons allegedly supporting the policy, including the one relied upon by the plurality, that it promotes rehabilitation. He thinks this notion of “rehab by deprivation” leads to a slippery slope where anything can be deprived on the basis that it will cause a prisoner to behave better, and that such a deprivation will be able to survive a constitutional attack because of the framework/analysis employed by the plurality. And he also thinks prisoners are sufficiently motivated to behave and move from Level 2 to Level 1 based on the other differences between the levels. Finally, Stevens thinks that this is simply moving us dangerously closer to a Big Brother world - “[w]hat is perhaps most troubling about the prison regulation at issue in this case is that the rule comes perilously close to a state-sponsored effort at mind control.”

Justice Ginsburg filed an additional dissenting opinion because she thinks the plurality is misinterpreting the summary judgment standard which requires the absence of a genuine issue of material fact as well as a showing by the moving party that they’re entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. She doesn’t think the Secretary made such a showing, and Ginsburg is concerned that under the plurality’s approach, particularly in giving deference to prison authorities, it will be hard for prisoners or other challengers to ever survive a summary judgment motion brought by prison officials. In the plurality opinion, Breyer actually addresses this argument, calling it poppycock because the prison still has to show not just a logical connection between the regulation and a prison interest, but that it’s reasonable. Plus, argues Breyer, prisoners can potentially get evidence showing that the policy isn’t reasonable (such as was done in a case which led to overturning a prison policy banning prisoner marriage). And finally, this isn’t a “de facto permanent ban,” in which case Breyer might reach a different conclusion.

Justice Alito wasn’t involved in considering or deciding this case because he was involved in the Third Circuit’s decision of the case (he was one of the dissenters, who would’ve upheld the District Court’s ruling, meaning he would have likely reversed and remanded here as well).