437 U.S. 678 (1978), 76-1660, Hutto v. Finney

Docket Nº:No. 76-1660
Citation:437 U.S. 678, 98 S.Ct. 2565, 57 L.Ed.2d 522
Party Name:Hutto v. Finney
Case Date:June 23, 1978
Court:United States Supreme Court

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437 U.S. 678 (1978)

98 S.Ct. 2565, 57 L.Ed.2d 522




No. 76-1660

United States Supreme Court

June 23, 1978

Argued February 21, 1978




After finding in respondent prison inmates' action against petitioner prison officials that conditions in the Arkansas prison system constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, the District Court entered a series of detailed remedial orders. On appeal to the Court of Appeals, petitioners challenged two aspects of that relief: (1) an order placing a maximum limit of 30 days on confinement in punitive isolation, and (2) an award of attorney's fees to be paid out of Department of Correction funds, based on the District Court's finding that petitioners had acted in bad faith in failing to cure the previously identified violations. The Court of Appeals affirmed, and assessed an additional attorney's fee to cover services on appeal.


1. The District Court did not err in including the 30-day limitation on sentences to isolation as part of its comprehensive remedy to correct the constitutional violations. Where the question before the court was whether these past constitutional violations had been remedied, it was entitled to consider the severity of the violations in assessing the constitutionality of conditions in the isolation cells, the length of time each inmate spent in isolation being simply one consideration among many. Pp. 685-688.

2. The District Court's award of attorney's fees to be paid out of Department of Correction funds is adequately supported by its finding that petitioners had acted in bad faith, and does not violate the Eleventh Amendment. The award served the same purpose as a remedial fine imposed for civil contempt, and vindicated the court's authority over a recalcitrant litigant. There being no reason to distinguish the award from any other penalty imposed to enforce a prospective injunction, the Eleventh Amendment's substantive protections do not prevent the award against the Department's officers in their official capacities, [98 S.Ct. 2568] and the fact that the order directed the award to be paid out of Department funds, rather than being assessed against petitioners in their official capacities, does not constitute reversible error. Pp. 689-693.

3. The Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Awards Act of 1976, which provides that, "[i]n any action" to enforce certain civil rights laws (including the law under which this action was brought), federal courts

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may award prevailing parties reasonable attorney's fees "as part of the costs," supports the additional award of attorney's fees by the Court of Appeals. Pp. 693-700.

(a) The Act's broad language, and the fact that it primarily applies to laws specifically passed to restrain unlawful state action, as well as the Act's legislative history, make it clear that Congress, when it passed the Act, intended to exercise its power to set aside the States' immunity from retroactive relief in order to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment, and to authorize fee awards payable by the States when their officials are sued in their official capacities. Pp. 693-694.

(b) Costs have traditionally been awarded against States without regard for the States' Eleventh Amendment immunity, and it is much too late to single out attorney's fees as the one kind of litigation cost whose recovery may not be authorized by Congress without an express statutory waiver of States' immunity. Pp. 694-698.

(c) The fact that neither the State nor the Department of Correction was expressly named as a defendant does not preclude the Court of Appeals' award, since, although the Eleventh Amendment prevented respondents from suing the State by name, their injunctive suit against petitioner prison officials was, for all practical purposes, brought against the State, so that, absent any indication that petitioners acted in bad faith before the Court of Appeals, the Department of Correction is the entity intended by Congress to bear the burden of the award. Pp. 699-700.

548 F.2d 740, affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, in Part I of which WHITE, J., joined, and in Parts I and II-A of which BURGER, C.J., and POWELL, J., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 700. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, and in the dissenting portion of which WHITE and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, post, p. 704. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in Part II of which WHITE, J., joined, post, p. 710.

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STEVENS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court. *

After finding that conditions in the Arkansas penal system constituted cruel and unusual punishment, the District Court entered a series of detailed remedial orders. On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, petitioners1 challenged two aspects of that relief: (1) an order placing a maximum limit of 30 days on confinement in punitive isolation; and (2) an award of attorney's fees to be paid out of Department of Correction funds. The Court of

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Appeals affirmed and assessed an additional attorney's fee to cover services on appeal. 548 F.2d 740 (1977). We granted certiorari, 434 U.S. 901, and now affirm.

This litigation began in 1969; it is a sequel to two earlier cases holding that conditions in the Arkansas prison system violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.2 Only a brief summary of the facts is necessary to explain the basis for the remedial orders.

The [98 S.Ct. 2569] routine conditions that the ordinary Arkansas convict had to endure were characterized by the District Court as "a dark and evil world completely alien to the free world." Holt v. Sarver, 309 F.Supp. 362, 381 (ED Ark.1970) (Holt II). That characterization was amply supported by the evidence.3

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The punishments for misconduct not serious enough to result in punitive isolation were cruel,4 unusual,5 and unpredictable.6 It is the discipline known as "punitive isolation" that is most relevant for present purposes.

Confinement in punitive isolation was for an indeterminate period of time. An average of 4, and sometimes as many as 10 or 11, prisoners were crowded into windowless 8' x 10' cells containing no furniture other than a source of water and a toilet that could only be flushed from outside the cell. Holt v. Sarver, 300 F.Supp. 825, 831-832 (ED Ark.1969) (Holt I). At night, the prisoners were given mattresses to spread on the floor. Although some prisoners suffered from infectious diseases such as hepatitis and venereal disease, mattresses were removed and jumbled together each morning,

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then returned to the cells at random in the evening. Id. at 832. Prisoners in isolation received fewer than 1,000 calories a day;7 their meals consisted primarily of 4-inch squares of "grue," a substance created by mashing meat, potatoes, oleo, syrup, vegetables, eggs, and seasoning into a paste and baking the mixture in a pan. Ibid.

After finding the conditions of confinement unconstitutional, the District Court did not immediately impose a detailed remedy of its own. Instead, it directed the Department of Correction to "make a substantial [98 S.Ct. 2570] start" on improving conditions and to file reports on its progress. Holt I, supra, at 833-834. When the Department's progress proved unsatisfactory, a second hearing was held. The District Court found some improvements, but concluded that prison conditions remained unconstitutional. Holt II, 309 F.Supp. at 383. Again the court offered prison administrators an opportunity to devise a plan of their own for remedying the constitutional violations, but this time the court issued guidelines, identifying four areas of change that would cure the worst evils: improving conditions in the isolation cells, increasing inmate safety, eliminating the barracks sleeping arrangements, and putting an end to the trusty system. Id. at 385. The Department was ordered to move as rapidly as funds became available. Ibid.

After this order was affirmed on appeal, Holt v. Sarver, 442 F.2d 304 (CA8 1971), more hearings were held in 1972 and 1973 to review the Department's progress. Finding substantial improvements, the District Court concluded that continuing supervision was no longer necessary. The court held,

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however, that its prior decrees would remain in effect, and noted that sanctions, as well as an award of costs and attorney's fees, would be imposed if violations occurred. Holt v. Hutto, 363 F.Supp. 194, 217 (ED Ark. 1973) (Holt III).

The Court of Appeals reversed the District Court's decision to withdraw its supervisory jurisdiction, Finney v. Arkansas Board of Correction, 505 F.2d 194 (CA8 1974), and the District Court held a fourth set of hearings. 410 F.Supp. 251 (ED Ark.1976). It found that, in some respects, conditions had seriously deteriorated since 1973, when the court had withdrawn its supervisory jurisdiction. Cummins Farm, which the court had condemned as overcrowded in 1970 because it housed 1,000 inmates, now had a population of about 1,500. Id. at 254-255. The situation in the punitive isolation cells was particularly disturbing. The court concluded that either it had misjudged conditions in these cells in 1973 or conditions had become much worse since then. Id. at 275. There were twice as many prisoners as beds in some cells. And because inmates in punitive isolation are often violently antisocial, overcrowding led to persecution of the weaker prisoners. The "grue" diet was still in use, and practically all inmates were losing weight on it. The cells had been vandalized to a "very substantial" extent. Id. at 276. Because of...

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