In Lewis v. Casey, 116 S.Ct. 2174 (1996), the Supreme Court demonstrated how basic structural limitations on federal judicial power--such as standing requirements--can serve to protect the States from unwarranted federal interference in their governance.
In Lewis, 22 inmates incarcerated in various Arizona state prisons filed a class action suit claiming that the State was depriving them of their right of access to the courts under Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977). Bounds had held that this right of access "requires prison authorities to assist inmates in the preparation and filing of meaningful legal papers by providing prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law." Id. at 828. The district court construed Bounds's holding as giving it the authority to engage in a wide-ranging review of the adequacy of Arizona's prison law libraries, and at the end of a three-month bench trial, the court ruled that Arizona's system failed to satisfy constitutional requirements.
The district court concluded that Arizona's prison libraries had inadequately trained staff, failed to update their legal materials, and had insufficient photocopying facilities. 116 S.Ct. at 2177-78. The court concluded that Arizona particularly failed to provide adequate legal assistance to "lockdown prisoners"--inmates who had been removed from the general prison population because of their dangerousness--and illiterate and non-English-speaking inmates. Id. at 2178. After appointing a special master to recommend appropriate relief, the district court proceeded to enter a remedial order the sheer arrogance of which almost surpasses belief. As described in Justice Thomas' concurring opinion, the court's order left "no stone unturned":
It covers everything from training in legal research to the ratio of typewriters to prisoners in each facility. It dictates the hours of operation for all prison libraries statewide, without regard to inmate use, staffing, or cost. It guarantees each prisoner a minimum two-hour visit to the library per trip, and allows the prisoner, not prison officials, to determine which reading room he will use. The order tells [Arizona] the types of forms it must use to take and respond to prisoner requests for materials. It requires all librarians to have an advanced degree in library science, law, or paralegal studies. ... The order goes so far as to dictate permissible noise levels in law library reading rooms and requires the State to "take all necessary steps, and correct any structural or acoustical problems." Id. at 2199.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit left this stunning order essentially undisturbed.
In an opinion written by Justice Scalia, the Supreme Court reversed the district court's injunction, for two separate reasons. In a portion of the opinion joined by eight members of the Court (Justice Stevens was the lone dissenter), the Court held that the district court's "wildly intrusive" injunction "failed to accord adequate deference to the judgment of the prison authorities." Id. at 2185. But in a separate section joined by only five Justices, the Court identified a more fundamental defect in the district court's order: the particular plaintiffs before the district court "lacked standing to complain of injuries to non-English speakers and lockdown prisoners," and the minimal showing of injury with respect to illiterate prisoners--while sufficient for standing purposes--could not support the systemwide relief ordered by the district court. Id. at 2183-84 & nn. 6 & 7.
In explaining this aspect of its decision, the Court began by noting that the doctrine of standing, by requiring a showing of "actual injury" before judicial relief may be afforded, "prevents courts of law from undertaking tasks assigned to the political branches." Id. at 2179. The Court further elaborated on the importance of standing rules in ensuring that federal courts stay within their proper bounds in our constitutional system:
It is the role of courts to provide relief to claimants, in individual or class actions, who have suffered, or will imminently suffer, actual harm; it is not the role of courts, but that of the political branches, to shape the institutions of government in such fashion as to comply with the laws and the Constitution. ... [T]he distinction between the two roles would be obliterated if, to invoke intervention of the courts, no actual or imminent harm were needed, but merely the status of being subject to a governmental institution that was not organized or managed properly. Id. at 2179.
In applying this standing requirement of actual injury, the Supreme Court held that the district court had lost sight of "the right to which the actual or threatened harm must pertain." Id. at 2179. "Because Bounds did not create an abstract, free-standing right to a law library or legal assistance, an inmate cannot establish relevant actual injury simply by establishing that his prison's law library or legal assistance program is sub-par in some theoretical sense." Id. at 2180. Rather, because the right involved in Bounds was the right of access to courts, a plaintiff "must go one step further and demonstrate that the alleged shortcomings in the library or legal assistance program hindered his efforts to pursue a legal claim." Id. The Court acknowledged that certain language in Bounds might be read "to suggest that the State must enable the prisoner to discover grievances, and to litigate effectively once in court," but the Court specifically disavowed those statements. Id. at 2181 (emphasis in original). Moreover, to establish a Bounds violation, the claim hindered must be one that attacks a sentence or conviction or that challenges conditions of confinement. Id. at 2181-82.
Applying these standards, the Court concluded that the district court's factual findings established only two instances of "actual injury": one illiterate inmate had a case dismissed with prejudice and another illiterate inmate in a separate prison was unable to file a legal action. Id. at 2182. The fact that only illiterate inmates had established actual injury meant that, right off the bat, the district court had erred in adopting injunctive provisions "directed at special services or special facilities required by non-English-speakers, by prisoners in lockdown, and by the inmate population at large." Id. at 2183. The standing rules thus ensured that the mere fact that a plaintiff had "demonstrated harm from one particular inadequacy in government administration" would not permit the courts "to remedy all inadequacies in that administration." Id. (emphasis in original). (The district court's broad, systemwide relief for illiterate prisoners was invalid, not because of lack of standing, but because the two isolated instances that provided standing "were a patently inadequate basis for a conclusion of systemwide violation and imposition of systemwide relief." Id. at 2184.)
Lewis reminds us that doctrines such as standing, far from being mere procedural hurdles, are vital structural protections that serve to prevent federal courts from running completely amok and intruding into matters that are properly the responsibilities of the States or the political branches of the federal government. Put simply, the district court in Lewis overlooked the fact that "[t]he Constitution charges federal judges with deciding cases and controversies, not with running state prisons." Id. at 2186 (Thomas, J., concurring).
*Dan Collins is Vice Chairman for Publications, Federalism and Separation of Powers Practice Group. He is an Associate at Munger, Tolles & Olson, Los Angeles.