Shadow Judges: Staff Attorney Adjudication of Prisoner Claims
44 Pages Posted: 26 Jan 2016 Last revised: 13 Apr 2017
Date Written: February 8, 2016
Prisoners bring over twenty percent of the civil cases filed in federal district courts, predominantly seeking redress for violations of their civil rights, or release from prison under habeas corpus. Because most prisoners (around 93%) proceed pro se in their federal civil litigation, they are already at a disadvantage. The deck is stacked against prisoner plaintiffs in other systemic ways. Local rules, general orders, and even district courts’ job postings suggest that when a plaintiff is a pro se prisoner, the plaintiff is denied an Article III judge. Judicial tasks that must be performed in prisoners’ cases, from administration to adjudication, are delegated to non-judicial staff. As a result, in the very same court, prisoners’ cases are decided by a court employee who works as part of the court’s “pro se staff,” while all other plaintiffs get an Article III judge (or at least a magistrate judge, if they consent). The Supreme Court’s 2015 Wellness International Network v. Sharif decision drew attention to delegation of Article III claims to non-Article III judges in the bankruptcy realm. There, the Court rigorously considered the impact of the structural error caused by delegation to judges who do not enjoy fixed salaries or life tenure. But delegation of the judicial power in the prisoner litigation context is still hiding in plain sight.
This article is the first to investigate the scope of the delegation to pro se staff and to consider the separation of powers concerns caused by delegation of the judicial power to pro se staff. It argues that local procedure has enabled the delegation, and that it has gone too far. Local procedure crafts rules for prisoner litigation that conflict with federal law, effectively denying access to an Article III judge. When federal courts overreach in this manner, their rulemaking exceeds the limited rulemaking authority Congress has delegated to the judiciary. This local procedure also violates federal policy, which generally disfavors allowing non-judicial actors to perform judicial tasks.
This article concludes with recommendations about how to solve the delegation problem. The strongest solution would be to eliminate the local procedure in question, and the pro se staff it creates. Congress would be required to address the issue directly and nationwide by creating, or not, additional procedure for prisoner litigation. A more moderate approach would publicize the identity of pro se staff as well as the nature of the work the staff undertakes. Pro se staff would come out of the shadows and into public view.
Keywords: Delegation, Article III, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Civil Procedure, Judges, Prisoners, Local Rules
JEL Classification: K4
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation