The Supreme Court of the United States issued decisions in two cases today:

Simmons v. Himmelreich, No. 15-109:  Respondent Walter Himmelreich, an inmate at a federal prison, brought two suits against prison officials, alleging that his beating by a fellow inmate was a result of the prison officials’ negligence.  The first suit was treated as a claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), but the suit was dismissed for falling under the FTCA’s “Exceptions” section, which provides that “the provisions of [Chapter 171] . . . shall not apply” to certain categories of claims.  Himmelreich’s second suit was a constitutional tort suit against individual prison employees, who moved for summary judgment, contending that this suit was foreclosed by the FTCA’s judgment bar provision.  That provision, contained in Chapter 171 of the FTCA, provides that a judgment in an FTCA suit forecloses future suits against the individual employees.  The District Court granted summary judgment, but the Sixth Circuit reversed, holding the judgment bar provision did not apply.  Today, the Court affirmed, holding that the statutory language of the “Exceptions” provision – that “[t]he provisions of this chapter . . . shall not apply” – should be interpreted as it was written, so that the judgment bar provision – one of the “provisions of this chapter” – does not apply to the categories of claims in the “Exceptions” sections of the FTCA. 

The Court's decision is available here

Ross v. Blake, No. 15-339:  When respondent Shaidon Blake, a Maryland inmate, was being moved by two guards to a segregation unit, one of the guards assaulted Blake.  Blake reported the incident to a corrections officer, who in turn referred the matter to the Maryland prison system’s Internal Investigative Unit (“IIU”), which then issued a report condemning the actions of the guard that assaulted Blake.  Blake then brought suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983 against the guard that assaulted him, as well as petitioner Michael Ross, the other guard, for failure to take protective action.  The District Court dismissed the suit against Ross after he raised the argument that Blake had failed to fulfill the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995’s (“PLRA”) requirement that an inmate exhaust “such administrative remedies as are available” before bringing suit.  The Fourth Circuit, however, reversed, holding that “special circumstances” could allow for an exception to the exhaustion requirement, as was the case here where Blake reasonably thought the IIU’s investigation removed his complaint from the typical administrative process.  The Court today reversed, rejecting the Fourth Circuit’s “freewheeling approach to exhaustion as inconsistent with the PLRA,” but observing that the statute itself does not require exhaustion if the remedies are not “available,” and remanding on that issue.

The Court's decision is available here.

The Supreme Court issued orders to hear arguments in three cases today:

Bethune-Hill v. VA Board of Elections, No. 15-680:  (1) Did the court below err in holding that race cannot predominate even where it is the most important consideration in drawing a given district unless the use of race results in “actual conflict” with traditional districting criteria?  (2) Did the court below err by concluding that the admitted use of a one-size-fits-all 55% black voting age population floor to draw twelve separate House of Delegates districts does not amount to racial predominance and trigger strict scrutiny?  (3) Did the court below err in disregarding the admitted use of race in drawing district lines in favor of examining circumstantial evidence regarding the contours of the districts?  (4) Did the district court below err in holding that racial goals must negate all other districting criteria in order for race to predominate?  (5) Did the court below err in concluding that the General Assembly’s predominant use of race in drawing House District 75 was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest?

Moore v. Texas, No. 15-797:  (1) Whether it violates the Eighth Amendment and this Court’s decisions in Hall v. Florida, 134 S. Ct. 1986 (2014) and Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) to prohibit the use of current medical standards on intellectual disability, and require the use of outdated medical standards, in determining whether an individual may be executed.  (2) Whether execution of a condemned individual more than three-and-one-half decades after the imposition of a death sentence violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. 

Buck v. Stephens, No. 15-8049:  Whether the Fifth Circuit imposed an improper and unduly burdensome Certificate of Appealability (“COA”) standard that contravenes Supreme Court precedent and deepens two circuit splits when it denied petitioner a COA on his motion to reopen judgment and obtain merits review of his claim that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective for knowingly presenting an “expert” who testified that petitioner was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is Black, where future dangerousness was both a prerequisite for a death sentence and the central issue at sentencing.