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Friday, August 30, 2019

Declaratory judgments and injunctions

The Fifth Circuit held that due process was violated by a system in which some portion of cash bail was used to fund court expenses and the magistrate deciding bail sits on the committee deciding how money should be spent. The remedies portion states as follows:

After recognizing this due process violation, the district court issued the following declaration: "Judge Cantrell's institutional incentives create a substantial and unconstitutional conflict of interest when he determines [the class's] ability to pay bail and sets the amount of [*8] that bail."

That declaratory relief was all plaintiffs sought. They believed that section 1983 prevents them from seeking injunctive relief as an initial remedy in this action brought against a state court judge. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("[I]n any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer's judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable . . . .").7

That statutory requirement reflects that declaratory relief is "a less harsh and abrasive remedy than the injunction." Steffel v. Thompson, 415 U.S. 452 , 463 (1974) (quotation omitted); see also Robinson v. Hunt Cty., 921 F.3d 440 , 450 (5th Cir. 2019); Restatement (Second) of Judgments § 33 cmt. c ("A declaratory action is intended to provide a remedy that is simpler and less harsh than coercive relief . . . ."). Principal among its advantages is giving state and local officials, like Judge Cantrell, the first crack at reforming their practices to conform to the Constitution. Steffel, 415 U.S. at 470 .

One response to the declaratory judgment would be eliminating Judge Cantrell's dual role, a role that is not mandated by Louisiana law. In contrast, because Louisiana law does require that the bond fees be sent to the Judicial Expense Fund, LA. R.S. 13:1381.5(B)(2)(a) , the declaratory judgment cannot undo that mandate. Challengers did not seek to enjoin that statute, instead arguing only that the dual role violated due process. But given today's ruling and last week's in Cain, it may well turn out that the only way to eliminate the unconstitutional temptation is to sever the direct link between the money the criminal court generates and the Judicial Expense Fund that supports its operations.

I am unsure about the final paragraph. The challengers cannot "enjoin that statute" because courts do not enjoin statutes; they enjoin enforcement of statutes. The district court could have declared that the state-law mandate created the unconstitutional conflict of interest; to comply with that judgment, the defendants would have had to stop enforcing that statute, much as if they had been enjoined from enforcing.  The court issued a seemingly narrower declaratory judgment. Perhaps the point of the final sentence is that eliminating the defendant magistrate's dual role would not eliminate the constitutional violation, opening the door to an injunction because the defendants violated the declaratory judgment.

Two other cute procedural pieces in the case: It was certified as a class action, thus avoiding mootness when the named plaintiffs' criminal cases ended. The court also noted that it is not clear that the exceptions provision of § 1983 applies here, because it is not certain that the defendant judge was acting in a judicial rather than administrative capacity.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 30, 2019 at 06:08 PM in Civil Procedure, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink

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