NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Court Ruling Prompts Avalanche Of Prisoner Lawsuits

November 13, 2000

A 5-4 Supreme Court decision last term has triggered an avalanche of jail-house lawsuits. In a case involving hate-crime laws, the high court ruled in Apprendi vs. New Jersey that the state's practice of letting judges increase prison sentences above the maximum when they determine crimes are racially motivated was unconstitutional.

  • There have been a deluge of pleas from prisoners and their lawyers to make the new constitutional rule retroactive.
  • But U.S. 11th Circuit Judge Gerald B. Tjoflat has held that only the Supreme Court can make a new rule retroactive -- and advised prisoners to "hold their horses and stop wasting everyone's time with futile applications."
  • The federal system has applied the court's ruling mainly to drug convictions based on the quantity or types of drugs sold, which affects thousands of sentences.

Some lawyers argue that the Supreme Court, out of "fairness," must apply its decision retroactively. But the Justice Department reportedly doesn't want it to be made retroactive, because it affects so many cases.

Source: Frank J. Murray, "Ruling Brings Influx of Prisoner Suits," Washington Times, November 13, 2000.


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