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Opinion analysis: Court makes quick work of prisoner fees case

The Supreme Court usually makes headlines when it issues decisions involving lofty constitutional issues like abortion or affirmative action. But many of the cases that make up the bread and butter of the Court’s docket simply call upon the Court to resolve a division among the lower courts on a question that Congress does not specifically address in federal laws. That was true in today’s unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in Bruce v. Samuels.

The question before the Court stems from Section 1915(b) of the Prison Litigation Reform Act. As I explained in my preview of the case, Congress enacted the PLRA in an attempt to reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits filed by inmates in federal courts. In a change from prior practice, the PLRA requires indigent prisoners to pay the filing fees for their lawsuits by paying a portion of the fees up front and then making monthly installment payments – at a rate of twenty percent of the previous month’s income – until the fees are paid in full.

Inmate Antoine Bruce, a “frequent filer” who is serving a fifteen-year sentence for armed kidnapping and assault with intent to kill, asked the Court to weigh in on a question not specifically addressed by the PLRA: how to debit the monthly installment payments when an inmate owes filing fees for more than one case. The government advocated what is known as the “per case” approach: the prisoner pays twenty percent of his previous month’s income for each case that he has filed. But Bruce argued in favor of what is known as the “per prisoner” approach: he should pay a total of twenty percent of his prior month’s income, no matter how many cases he has filed, with the filing fees being paid in the order in which the cases were filed. With more than thirty thousand cases filed by inmates in federal court each year, the Court’s answer could have a real effect on the workload of those courts.

For the Court, it was a relatively simple answer. In an eight-page opinion with just two paragraphs of analysis, occupying less than a page, the Court today adopted the “per case” approach. It reasoned that, even if the PLRA does not clearly answer the question, the “per case” approach is more consistent with the statute’s text and context. Perhaps most significantly, the Court emphasized, the sections of the PLRA relevant to this case are “written from the perspective of a single case”: because they call for an inmate to pay “an initial partial filing fee” whenever he files a case or an appeal, it would follow that the obligation to make an installment payment of twenty percent of the prior month’s income until the entire fee is paid would also apply for each case. And the “per case” approach, the Court added, “more vigorously serves” the PLRA’s “objective of containing prisoner litigation.”

The Court gave short shrift to Bruce’s arguments that the “per case” approach could prevent prisoners from filing meritorious lawsuits raising serious constitutional claims and could prove difficult to implement in practice. The Court noted that a “safety valve” provision of the PLRA still allows an inmate to file a lawsuit even if he can’t make the initial filing fee payment, while a “friend of the Court” brief filed by several states suggested that “the per-case approach is unproblematic.”

During my analysis of the oral argument, I observed that – somewhat surprisingly – Bruce’s only ally on the Court seemed to be Chief Justice John Roberts, which raised the “fascinating hypothetical prospect” of the Chief Justice as the lone dissenter in support of a fairly unsympathetic inmate. I was wrong, of course: today’s ruling was unanimous. Was the Chief Justice satisfied in the end with the government’s answers, or was he just playing devil’s advocate – which (as I noted at the time) he sometimes does? We may never know, but I suspect it was the latter.

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, Opinion analysis: Court makes quick work of prisoner fees case, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 12, 2016, 11:55 AM),