Ruiz v. Estelle

Decision Date23 June 1982
Docket NumberNos. 81-2224,81-2380 and 81-2390,s. 81-2224
Parties10 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. 1483 David R. RUIZ, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellees, United States of America, Intervenor-Appellee, v. W. J. ESTELLE, Jr., et al., Defendants-Appellants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

Mark White, Atty. Gen. of Tex., Ed Idar, Jr., Douglas M. Becker, Kenneth L. Petersen, Jr., Asst. Attys. Gen., Pike Powers, Lee C. Clyburn, Austin, Tex., William R. Pakalka, Jerry E. Smith, Houston, Tex., Keith A. Jones, Washington, D.C., for defendants-appellants.

Donald W. Jackson, Edward J. Landry, Asst. County Attys., Houston, Tex., for Heard.

William Bennett Turner, San Francisco, Cal., Steven L. Winter, Joel Berger, Jack Greenberg, New York City, Samuel T. Biscoe, Dallas, Tex., for Ruiz, et al.

Jim D. Wiginton, Angleton, Tex., Donna Brorby, San Francisco, Cal., for L. D. Hilliard.

Dennis J. Dimsey, W. Bradford Reynolds, Appellate Section, Civil Rights Div., U. S. Dept. of Justice, Washington, D.C., for U. S. A.

David Crump, Law School, University of Houston, Susan E. Waite, The Legal Foundation of America, Houston, Tex., for amicus curiae Legal Foundation of America.

Alvin J. Bronstein, ACLU, Elizabeth Alexander, Washington, D.C., for amicus curiae ACLU-National Prison Project.

Appeals from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

Page 1126

Before CLARK, Chief Judge, RUBIN and TATE, Circuit Judges.

ALVIN B. RUBIN, Circuit Judge:

"There is no iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country." 1 When the remedial powers of a federal court are invoked to protect the constitutional rights of inmates, the court may not take a "hands-off" approach. 2

The duty to protect inmates' constitutional rights, however, does not confer the power to manage prisons, for which courts are ill-equipped, 3 or the capacity to second-guess prison administrators. 4 Federal courts should not, "in the name of the Constitution, become ... enmeshed in the minutiae of prison operations." 5 Our task is limited to enforcing constitutional standards and does not embrace superintending prison administration. 6

This class action on behalf of more than 33,000 inmates confined in the various institutions operated by the Texas Department of Corrections ("TDC") 7 challenges the conditions of their confinement as cruel and unusual punishment and a denial of due process of law in violation of the eighth and fourteenth amendments to the Constitution. We are required to determine whether the district court correctly found that the conditions of confinement in TDC violate the Constitution and, if so, whether the remedy imposed went beyond the correction of constitutional deficiencies and intruded unduly on the state's management of its prison system or enmeshed the court in the details of prison management.

We affirm the district court's finding that TDC imposes cruel and unusual punishment on inmates in its custody as a result of the totality of conditions in its prisons. We also affirm the district court's finding that some of TDC's practices deny inmates due process of law. We affirm its conclusion that remedial measures are necessary. Concluding, however, that the district court inappropriately considered state law claims not raised by the parties, we reverse its order that TDC conform its practices to state statutory requirements. We also conclude that some of the remedial measures ordered are not demonstrably required to protect constitutional rights and intrude unduly on matters of state concern and we, therefore, narrow the scope of the relief ordered. An outline of our lengthy opinion is set forth in the margin. 8

Page 1127


The Texas state prison system, operated by TDC, is the largest in the United States. Its inmates, now numbering more than 33,000, are confined in cells or dormitories located in twenty-two separate units, almost all of which have maximum security. Most of the approximately 10,000 cells measure nine feet by five feet, but some are as large as sixty-six square feet. Most of the dormitories house large numbers of inmates and are crowded. After the consolidation of eight separate actions by individual inmates against W. J. Estelle, the Director of TDC, challenging the conditions of their confinement, the district court certified the case as a class action and permitted the United States to intervene as a plaintiff. 9

The trial began in Houston on October 2, 1978, and, after 159 days of trial, bridging a three-month recess, was completed on September 20, 1979. Three hundred forty-nine witnesses testified and 1,565 exhibits were received into evidence. 10 The district court issued a 118-page memorandum opinion on December 12, 1980, indicating generally the relief it proposed to grant, and gave the parties an opportunity to agree on a proposed judgment. The parties later filed a proposed consent decree disposing of many of the issues. 11 The district court approved this consent decree, entered a decree granting equitable relief and a declaratory judgment 12 on the issues not disposed of by the

Page 1128

consent decree, appointed a special master to monitor implementation of the relief ordered, 13 and denied TDC's motion for a stay. TDC then applied to this court for a stay, which we granted in part and denied in part. 14 TDC later sought a supplemental stay, which, again, we granted in part and denied in part. 15 The parties then agreed to a second consent decree that modified parts of the district court's decree, and we remanded the case to enable the district court to hold a class action hearing on the proposed modifications. After that hearing, the district court approved the second consent decree 16 and, in accordance with its terms, TDC moved under Fed.R.App.P. 42(b) for voluntary dismissal of its appeal of the provisions of the district court's decree 17 that were superseded by the second consent decree. The case has also been before us on interlocutory appeals; this marks its seventh appearance in our court. 18

We turn first to the pervasive issues still contested: TDC's attack on the fairness of the trial, the sufficiency of the district court's findings of fact, the intervention by the United States, and the joinder of the Texas Board of Corrections and individual members of the Board as parties defendant.

Page 1129


TDC contends that the district judge made many errors in his rulings concerning the conduct of the trial and the admissibility of evidence, the cumulative effect of which was so prejudicial as to deny TDC its right to a fair trial. The impugnment is more than a challenge to specific rulings, however, for it includes assertions that "the entire record is permeated with favoritism" toward the plaintiffs and "unrelenting unfairness" toward TDC and is infected both by "evident prejudgment" of the case in the plaintiffs' favor and by judicial bias.

The constitutional guarantee of due process of law ordains a fair trial. 19 The trial judge must not become "personally embroiled" in the proceedings. 20 He must not assume the role of prosecutor 21 or defender. 22 He must avoid even the appearance of favoring one side. 23 However, "(o)nly when the judge's conduct strays from neutrality is a defendant thereby denied a fair trial as required by the Constitution." 24 Moreover, even if the trial judge does commit error, it is presumed harmless until shown to be prejudicial. The complaining party must prove that the error was substantial and that it prejudiced his case. 25

Though the trial judge must be neutral, he should not be a passive spectator. 26 "He is a common law judge having that authority historically exercised by judges in the common law process," 27 and not simply come but to say, "sustained," or "overruled." He may, when in his sound discretion he deems it advisable, comment on the evidence, question witnesses, elicit facts not yet adduced or clarify those previously presented, and maintain the pace of the trial by interrupting or setting time limits on counsel. 28 He must not usurp the role of counsel, but he may manage the trial's course to achieve a "just, speedy, and

Page 1130

inexpensive determination" of the action. Fed.R.Civ.P. 1. 29 Obviously he has greater latitude in conducting a bench trial, for then it is his duty to determine the facts, and his conduct cannot influence jurors. 30 In complex and protracted trials like this one, the trial judge must assume even greater responsibility for the direction of the trial than he undertakes in short and simple ones.

Pretrial discovery in this case was exhaustive, the district judge required complete pretrial disclosure of expected testimony, and he limited to some degree the length of cross-examination of a number of witnesses. The trial nevertheless lasted almost a full year. After the plaintiffs had presented all of their witnesses and the United States, as plaintiff-intervenor, had presented most of its witnesses, there was a three-month recess, ample time for TDC to prepare refutation and rebuttal. 31 All of these factors, together with the fact that the judge was the factfinder, must be considered in evaluating TDC's contentions.

The conduct of the district judge is attacked with a barrage of charges. TDC contends that his pretrial orders were more exacting of TDC than of the other parties, 32 and that during pretrial proceedings he was partial to the plaintiffs in many respects. TDC also contends that he excluded much of TDC's evidence, 33 treated TDC's witnesses unfairly in comparison with the treatment accorded the plaintiffs' witnesses, 34

Page 1131

and improperly limited TDC's cross-examinations and rebuttals. 35 TDC contends generally that the record is "permeated with favoritism."

Considering the full record of the lengthy trial, we find little probative value in the excluded evidence, and no prejudice in the...

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