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The initial comment about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the 1995 Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) focused on how it would affect prison consent decrees. But some think the decision, which upheld a federal statute that suspends judicial orders regarding prison conditions if judges take more than 90 days to decide modification motions filed by state officials, will have impact beyond prison walls. Lynn Branham, a University of Illinois School of Law professor who formerly chaired the American Bar Association’s task force on prisoner litigation, said that the decision, Miller v. French, No. 99-224, opens a Pandora’s box. “When Congress doesn’t like what judges are doing in environment cases, antitrust litigation and other areas, they can pass statutes directing the courts to set aside those orders and try the cases again under new standards,” she said. “Then they can require them to try again a year later. Only when [the Supreme Court] is faced with dozens of statutes setting court orders aside will it suddenly realize what has happened.” Under the PLRA, judges may award relief only if they find it is the least intrusive means necessary, and extends no further than necessary, to correct the violation of a federal right. The law also declares that a state motion to alter or terminate an existing court order regarding prisons shall act automatically to suspend that order no more than 90 days after the motion is filed. For more than 200 years, it has been a principle of the Supreme Court’s separation-of-powers jurisprudence that Congress may not suspend the final decision of a federal court; but it has long been just as settled that Congress may pass laws that alter the prospective effect of judicial injunctions. The question posed by the PLRA: Is the automatic stay an impermissible suspension of a final decision or a permissible alteration in prospective relief? NEW STANDARDS, NEW LAW The 5-4 majority — Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony M. Kennedy — said it was the latter. “By establishing new standards for the enforcement of prospective relief in [prison cases], Congress has altered the relevant underlying law,” Justice O’Connor wrote for the majority. “[T]he stay merely reflects the changed legal circumstances — that prospective relief under the existing decree is unenforceable unless and until the court makes the [required findings].” Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with the majority’s determination that Congress intended to divest the courts of their traditional equitable powers to enjoin the stay. But they dissented on the question of whether the 90-day limit leaves judges too little time to determine whether the new statutory requirements are met. “[I]f the statute provides insufficient time for a court to make that determination before the statute invalidates an extant remedial order the prospective order suddenly turns unenforceable not because a court has made a judgment to terminate it due to changed law or fact, but because no one can tell in the time allowed whether the new rule requires modification of the old order,” Justice Souter wrote. The majority did say that the law’s short time frame might present a due process issue not before them in the case.

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