New Docs Shift High Court's Focus in Prisoners' Rights Case

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By Jessica DaSilva

March 29 — The submission of several last-minute documents in a case about a procedural administrative issue dealing with prisoners' civil rights could result in the U.S. Supreme Court dismissing the case as improperly granted.

The question presented asked whether a circuit court could create a special circumstances exception under the Prison Litigation Reform Act for an inmate who thought he had exhausted his administrative remedies before filing a civil claim, but did not actually comply.

The new documents, which were lodged with the court March 28, raised a question as to whether the state of Maryland's guidance to inmates was so confusing that the state effectively failed to provide any remedy at all.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. pressed all parties on the issue during oral arguments March 29, expressing concern that none of the materials had been made available to the courts below.

Instead, justices focused on the adequacy of Maryland's system and whether an objectively reasonable prisoner could understand how to comply with its requirements.

Two Agencies, Both Alike

In Maryland, the Internal Investigative Unit, or IIU, investigates serious misconduct by correctional officers for the state. The administrative remedy process, or ARP, describes the state process to address inmate grievances and award compensation, if necessary.

The Inmate Grievance Office, or IGO, is an entity independent from the prison with the authority to act as the ARP when the ARP is not available. When the ARP is available, the IGO hears appeals from the ARP.

Defendant Shaidon Blake filed a grievance with the IIU against correctional officers who assaulted him in prison. When the IIU denied the claim, Blake filed a lawsuit in federal court. The officer countered that Blake failed to exhaust his remedies because he did not file a separate grievance through the ARP or IGO.

However, the materials lodged with the court one day before oral arguments showed that Maryland used a rubber stamp, almost always automatically denying ARP claims that were under IIU investigation.

Nature of Case Changed

During Maryland Assistant Attorney General Julia Doyle Bernhardt's argument, Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg doggedly asked about what resources were made available to prisoners seeking to file grievances and what those resources advised.

Kagan pointed out that the new documents changed the nature of the case.

“We took this case on the view, which was the view that the office represented to us at the time, that the ARP was the proper place to go to receive a remedy—not the proper place to go to receive a rubber stamp saying ‘You've come to the wrong place,' but the proper place to go to receive a remedy even when there was an IIU investigation going on,” Kagan said.

Roberts piggybacked off the sentiment, asking whether the court should simply dismiss the case as improperly granted in light of the new information never entered at either level of the lower courts.

Even though Bernhardt answered that the court could still decide the question presented, none of the justices' questions nor the substantive argument touched on the authority of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to create a procedural exception.

What Standard?

Attorney Zachary D. Tripp—representing the U.S., which entered an amicus curiae brief supporting Maryland—urged the court to answer the question presented.

Tripp plainly stated that the U.S. did not maintain an interest in whether Maryland's procedural guidelines offered sufficient guidance for prisoners to comply. However, Tripp argued that if a handful of inmates could comply with the requirements, it demonstrated that Maryland provided sufficient guidance for compliance.

When Paul W. Hughes, Washington, argued for Blake, he encountered the same push-back from Roberts on the last-minute introduction of documents not subjected to discovery or the rules of evidence.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer also expressed concern about adopting a specific test to establish the standard for whether Maryland provided a remedy, citing to a difference in language between the Fourth Circuit and the Second Circuit.

“These words will take on importance in the prison system.,” Breyer said. “I'm always nervous when that happens.”

In response, Hughes argued that an objectively reasonable prisoner standard should suffice. In responding to the U.S.'s argument on compliance for a handful of inmates, Hughes said that standard would be insufficient and could encourage guesswork.

Finally, Hughes argued that Maryland “created very substantial trips and traps” to ensure that the most serious complaints against Maryland correctional officers are dismissed.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jessica DaSilva at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at

For More Information

Full text of oral argument transcript at