Rowland v. California Men Colony, Unit Ii Men Advisory Council, No. 91-1188

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtSOUTER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed a dissenting opinion. THOMAS
Citation121 L.Ed.2d 656,113 S.Ct. 716,506 U.S. 194
Docket NumberNo. 91-1188
Decision Date12 January 1993
PartiesJames ROWLAND, Former Director, California Department of Corrections, et al., Petitioners, v. CALIFORNIA MEN'S COLONY, UNIT II MEN'S ADVISORY COUNCIL

506 U.S. 194
113 S.Ct. 716
121 L.Ed.2d 656
James ROWLAND, Former Director, California Department of Corrections, et al., Petitioners,

v.

CALIFORNIA MEN'S COLONY, UNIT II MEN'S ADVISORY COUNCIL.

No. 91-1188.
Argued Oct. 6, 1992.
Decided Jan. 12, 1993.
Syllabus *

In a suit filed in the District Court against petitioner state correctional officers, respondent, a representative association of inmates in a California prison, sought leave to proceed in forma pauperis under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a), which permits litigation without prepayment of fees, costs, or security "by a person who makes affidavit that he is unable to pay." The court denied the motion for an inadequate showing of indigency. In reversing that decision, the Court of Appeals noted that a "person" who may be authorized to proceed in forma pauperis under § 1915(a) may be an "association" under the Dictionary Act, 1 U.S.C. § 1, which in relevant part provides that "in determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, unless the context indicates otherwise" " 'person' " includes "associations" and other artificial entities such as corporations and societies.

Held: Only a natural person may qualify for treatment in forma pauperis under § 1915. Pp. ____.

(a) "Context," as used in 1 U.S.C. § 1, means the text of the Act of Congress surrounding the word at issue or the texts of other related congressional acts, and this is simply an instance of the word's ordinary meaning. Had Congress intended to point to a broader definition that would include things such as legislative history, it would have been natural to use a more spacious phrase. In contrast to the narrow meaning of "context," "indication" bespeaks something more than an express contrary definition, addressing the situation where Congress provides no particular definition, but the definition in § 1 seems not to fit. Pp. ____.

(b) Four contextual features indicate that "person" in 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a) refers only to individuals. First, the permissive language used in § 1915(d)—that a "court may request an attorney to represent any such person unable to employ counsel" (emphasis added)—suggests that Congress assumed that courts would sometimes leave the "person" to conduct litigation on his own behalf, and, thus, also assumed that the "person" has the legal capacity to petition the court for appointment of counsel while unrepresented and the capacity to litigate pro se should the petition be denied. These assumptions suggest in turn that Congress was thinking in terms of natural persons, because the law permits corporations, see, e.g., Osborn v. Bank of the United States, 9 Wheat. 738, 829, 6 L.Ed. 204, and other artificial entities, see, e.g., Eagle Associates v. Bank of Montreal, 926 F.2d 1305 (CA2 1991), to appear in federal courts only through licensed counsel. Second, § 1915(d) describes the affidavit required by § 1915(a) as an allegation of "poverty," which is a human condition that does not apply to an artificial entity. Third, because artificial entities cannot take oaths, they cannot make the affidavits required in § 1915(a). It would be difficult to accept an affidavit on the entity's behalf from an officer or agent in this statutory context, since it would be hard to determine an affiant's authorization to act on behalf of an amorphous legal creature such as respondent; since the term "he" used in § 1915(a)'s requirement that the affidavit must state the "affiant's belief that he is entitled to redress" (emphasis added) naturally refers to the "affiant" as the person seeking in forma pauperis status; and since the affidavit cannot serve its deterrent function fully when applied to artificial entities, which may not be imprisoned for perjurious statements. Fourth, § 1915 gives no hint of how to resolve the issues raised by applying an "inability to pay" standard to artificial entities. Although the "necessities of life" criterion cannot apply, no alternative criterion can be discerned in § 1915's language and there is no obvious analogy, including insolvency, to that criterion in the organizational context. Nor does § 1915 guide courts in determining when to "pierce the veil" of the entity, which would be necessary to avoid abuse. Respondent's argument that there is no need to formulate comprehensive rules in the instant case because it would be eligible under any set of rules is rejected, since recognizing the possibility of organizational eligibility would force this Court to delve into difficult policy and administration issues without any guidance from § 1915. Pp. ____.

(c) Section 1915 manifests no single purpose that would be substantially frustrated by limiting the statutory reach to natural persons. Wilson v. Omaha Indian Tribe, 442 U.S. 653, 666, 99 S.Ct. 2529, 2537, 61 L.Ed.2d 153; United States v. A & P Trucking Co., 358 U.S. 121, 79 S.Ct. 203, 3 L.Ed.2d 165, distinguished. In addition, denying respondent in forma pauperis status would not place an unconstitutional burden on its members' First Amendment rights to associate by requiring them to demonstrate their indigency status, since a court could hardly ignore the assets of an association's members in making an indigency determination for the organization. Pp. ____.

939 F.2d 854 (CA9 1991), reversed and remanded.

SOUTER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed a dissenting opinion. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, STEVENS, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined.

James Ching, Sacramento, Cal., argued for petitioners.

Charles D. Weisselberg, Los Angeles, Cal., argued for respondent.

Justice SOUTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

Title 28 U.S.C. § 1915, providing for appearances in forma pauperis, authorizes federal courts to favor any "person" meeting its criteria with a series of benefits including dispensation from the obligation to prepay fees, costs, or security for bringing, defending, or appealing a lawsuit. Here, we are asked to decide whether the term "person" as so used applies to the artificial entities listed in the definition of that term contained in 1 U.S.C. § 1. We hold that it does not, so that only a natural person may qualify for treatment in forma pauperis under § 1915.

I

Respondent California Men's Colony, Unit II Men's Advisory Council is a representative association of prison inmates organized at the behest of one of the petitioners, the Warden of the Colony, to advise him of complaints and recommendations from the inmates, and to communicate his administrative decisions back to them. The general prison population elects the Council's members.

In a complaint filed in the District Court in 1989, the Council charged the petitioners, state correctional officers, with violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments in discontinuing their practice of providing free tobacco to indigent inmates. The Council sought leave to proceed in forma pauperis under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a), claiming by affidavit of the Council's Chairman that the Warden forbade the Council to hold funds of its own. The District Court denied the motion for an inadequate showing of indigency, though it responded to the Council's motion for reconsideration with a suggestion of willingness to consider an amended application containing "details of each individual's indigency."

On appeal, the Council was allowed to proceed in forma pauperis to enable the court to reach the very question "whether an organization, such as [the Council], may proceed in forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)," No. 90-55600 (CA9, July 20, 1990). The court requested that a lawyer represent the Council pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d).1

The Court of Appeals reversed, 939 F.2d 854 (CA9 1991), noting that a "person" who may be authorized by a federal court to proceed in forma pauperis under § 1915(a) may be an "association" under a definition provided in 1 U.S.C. § 1. The Council being an "association," it was a "person" within the meaning of § 1915(a), and could proceed in forma pauperis upon the requisite proof of its indigency. The court found it adequate proof that prison regulations prohibited the Council from maintaining a bank account, and, apparently, from owning any other asset.

We granted certiorari, 503 U.S. ----, 112 S.Ct. 1261, 117 L.Ed.2d 490 (1992), to resolve a conflict between that decision and the holding in FDM Manufacturing Co. v. Scottsdale Ins. Co., 855 F.2d 213 (CA5 1988) (per curiam) ("person," within the meaning of § 1915(a), includes only natural persons). We reverse.

II
A.

Both § 1915(a), which the Council invoked in seeking to be excused from prepaying filing fees, and § 1915(d) employ the word "person" in controlling access to four benefits provided by § 1915 and a related statute. First, a qualifying person may "commenc[e], prosecut[e] or defen[d] . . . any suit, action or proceeding, civil or criminal, or appeal therein, without prepayment of fees and costs or security therefor." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a). Second, a court may in certain cases direct the United States to pay the person's expenses in printing the record on appeal and preparing a transcript of proceedings before a United States magistrate. § 1915(b). Third, if the person is unable to employ counsel, "[t]he court may request an attorney to represent [him]." § 1915(d). And, fourth, in an appeal, the United States will pay for a transcript of proceedings below "if the trial judge or a circuit judge certifies that the appeal is not frivolous (but presents a substantial question)." 28 U.S.C. § 753(f); see ibid. (detailing slightly different criteria for habeas proceedings).

"Persons" were not always so entitled, for the benefits of § 1915 were once available only to "citizens," a term held, in the only two cases on the issue, to exclude corporations. See Atlantic S.S. Corp. v. Kelley, 79 F.2d 339, 340 (CCA5 1935) (construing the...

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