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January 22, 2007 - Associated Press (US)

Court Eases Restrictions On Inmate Suits

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

WASHINGTON (AP) - A unanimous Supreme Court on Monday sided with three Michigan inmates by making it easier for them to pursue lawsuits complaining about their treatment behind bars.

The court reversed lower court rulings that had thrown out the prisoners' suits on grounds that all three had failed to exhaust the administrative grievance procedure.

Chief Justice John Roberts said the procedural rules that the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals used in the cases are not required under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The law requires prisoners to go through a lengthy administrative grievance process before they may sue in court.

Roberts said the Michigan inmates are not required to demonstrate that they have exhausted the administrative complaint procedure. The chief justice said nothing in Michigan prison policy requires that an individual be named in an administrative grievance.

The Supreme Court is "not insensitive to the challenges faced by the lower federal courts in managing their dockets and attempting to separate, when it comes to prison suits ..., needles from haystacks," Roberts wrote.

But the chief justice added that adopting "different and more onerous pleading rules ... should not be done on a case-by-case basis by the courts."

In addition, Roberts wrote, the prison litigation law does not require dismissing the entire lawsuit when an inmate fails to exhaust some of the inmate's claims administratively.

With courts flooded by inmate litigation, the Republican-controlled Congress approved a law in 1995 that sought to limit the number of federal lawsuits filed by prisoners over the conditions of their incarceration.

Nearly 42,000 civil rights petitions were filed in 1995 before the law took effect. About 24,000 are now filed each year. Some prisoner advocates have expressed worries that the law has led to some legitimate claims being pushed aside because of technicalities.

The Supreme Court decision came in the cases of Michigan inmates Lorenzo Jones, John Walton and Timothy Williams on grounds that all three had failed to exhaust the administrative grievance procedure.

The cases are Jones v. Bock, 05-7058, Williams v. Overton, and Walton v. Bouchard, 05-7142.

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