500 U.S. 136 (1991), 90-5635, McCarthy v. Bronson

Docket Nº:No. 90-5635
Citation:500 U.S. 136, 111 S.Ct. 1737, 114 L.Ed.2d 194, 59 U.S.L.W. 4441
Party Name:McCarthy v. Bronson
Case Date:May 20, 1991
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 136

500 U.S. 136 (1991)

111 S.Ct. 1737, 114 L.Ed.2d 194, 59 U.S.L.W. 4441

McCarthy

v.

Bronson

No. 90-5635

United States Supreme Court

May 20, 1991

Argued March 25, 1991

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Petitioner brought a District Court suit against various state prison officials alleging that, in violation of his constitutional rights, they used excessive force when transferring him fro one cell to another.

Although he waived a jury trial and initially consented to have a magistrate try the entire case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1), petitioner was permitted at trial to withdraw his consent to the Magistrate's jurisdiction. However, the Magistrate ruled that he was nonetheless authorized to conduct an evidentiary hearing and to submit proposed findings of fact and a recommended disposition to the court under § 636(b)(1)(B), which authorizes the nonconsensual referral to magistrates for such purposes "of applications for post-trial relief made by individuals convicted of criminal offenses and of prisoner petitions challenging conditions of confinement." (Emphasis added.) The District Court overruled petitioner's objection to the Magistrate's role and accepted the Magistrate's recommended findings and judgment for defendants. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Section 636(b)(1)(B) does not, as petitioner contends, permit nonconsensual referrals to a magistrate only when a prisoner challenges ongoing prison conditions, but encompasses cases alleging a specific episode of unconstitutional conduct by prison administrators. Pp. 138-144.

(a) Although the most natural reading of the phrase "challenging conditions of confinement," when viewed in isolation, would not include suits seeking relief from isolated episodes of unconstitutional conduct, § 636(b)(1)(B)'s text, when read in its entirety, suggests that Congress intended to include the two primary categories of prisoner suits -- habeas corpus applications and actions for monetary or injunctive relief -- and thus to authorize the nonconsensual reference of all prisoner petitions to a magistrate. This interpretation [111 S.Ct. 1739] is bolstered by Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475, 498-499, which, just three years before § 636(b)(1)(B) was drafted, described the same two broad categories of prisoner petitions and unambiguously embraced challenges to specific instances of unconstitutional conduct within "conditions of confinement." The fact that Congress may have used the latter term to mean ongoing situations in other legislation having a different purpose cannot alter the interpretation of the § 636(b)(1)(B) language that so clearly parallels the Preiser opinion. Moreover, adoption of the Preiser definition comports with

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§ 636(b)(1)(B)'s central purpose of assisting federal judges in handling an ever-increasing caseload. Pp. 138-144.

(b) Petitioner argues that, because a prisoner is constitutionally entitled to a jury trial in a damages action arising out of a specific episode of misconduct, it is unlikely that Congress would authorize a nonconsensual reference in such a case to a magistrate who may not conduct a jury trial. This argument is not persuasive. Petitioner's statutory reading concededly would not eliminate in all actions the potential constitutional difficulty he identifies. More important, the statute, properly interpreted, is not constitutionally infirm in cases like this one, in which the plaintiff waived the right to a jury trial, nor in cases in which the jury right exists and is not waived, in which the lower courts, guided by the principle of constitutional avoidance, have consistently held that the statute does not authorize reference to a magistrate. Pp. 144.

906 F.2d 835 (CA2 1990), affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion or a unanimous Court.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1976, Congress authorized the nonconsensual referral to magistrates for a hearing and recommended findings "of prisoner petitions challenging conditions of confinement." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).[1] We granted certiorari to decide whether that authorization includes cases alleging a specific

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episode of unconstitutional conduct by prison administrators, or encompasses only challenges to ongoing prison conditions. 498 U.S. 1011 (1990).

In this case, the petitioner brought suit against various prison officials alleging that, in violation of his constitutional rights, they used excessive force when they transferred him from one cell to another on July 13, 1982. App. 11-24. Petitioner waived a jury trial and initially consented to have a magistrate try the entire case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1).[2] See App. 7-8, 28-29. On the first day of trial, however, petitioner sought to withdraw his consent. Petitioner was permitted to withdraw his consent, but the Magistrate [111 S.Ct. 1740] ruled that he was nonetheless authorized to conduct an evidentiary hearing and to submit proposed findings of fact and a recommended disposition to the District Court. See id. at 30-31.

After a hearing, the Magistrate recommended detailed findings and a judgment for defendants. Id. at 33-49. The District Court accepted the Magistrate's recommendation and overruled petitioner's objection to the Magistrate's role. Id. at 54-55. The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's determination that the Magistrate was authorized by § 636(b)(1)(B) to hold the hearing and to recommend findings. 906 F.2d 835 (CA2 1990).

Petitioner contends that § 636(b)(1)(B) permits nonconsensual referrals to a magistrate only when a prisoner challenges ongoing prison conditions. Suits alleging that administrators acted unconstitutionally in an isolated incident, petitioner

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suggests, are not properly classified as "petitions challenging conditions of confinement." § 636(b)(1)(B).

Petitioner advances two reasonable arguments for his construction of the statute. First, he maintains that the ordinary meaning of the words "conditions of confinement" includes continuous conditions, and excludes isolated incidents. Second, he suggests that, because a prisoner is constitutionally entitled to a jury trial in a damages action arising out of a specific episode of misconduct, it seems unlikely that Congress would authorize a nonconsensual reference to a magistrate in such a case. In our judgment, however, these arguments, although not without force, are overcome by other considerations.

We do not quarrel with petitioner's claim that the most natural reading of the phrase "challenging conditions of confinement," when viewed in isolation, would not include suits seeking relief from isolated episodes of unconstitutional conduct. However, statutory language must always be read in its proper context.

In ascertaining the plain meaning of [a] statute, the court must look to the particular statutory language at issue, as well as the language and design of the statute as a whole.

K Mart Corp. v. Cartier Inc., 486 U.S. 281, 291 (1988). See also Crandon v. United States, 494 U.S. 152, 158 (1990) ("In determining the meaning of the statute, we look not only to the particular statutory language, but to the design of the statute as a whole, and to its object and policy").

The text of the statute does not define the term "conditions of confinement" or contain any language suggesting that prisoner petitions should be divided into subcategories. On the contrary, when the relevant section is read in its entirety, it...

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