New opinion: Third Circuit sets limits on death-row solitary confinement

Williams v. Secretary — prisoner civil rights — affirmance — McKee

In a major opinion issued today, the Third Circuit held that death row inmates have a due process right not to be housed in solitary confinement, without meaningful review, after a court has vacated their death sentences. The court recognized this right and held that it is clearly established (and thus enforceable in a federal civil rights suit) going forward, but it affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment against the two prisoners who brought these suits because the right was not clearly established until this opinion.

Both plaintiffs originally were sentenced to death, later won sentencing-phase relief, and in the end were re-sentenced to life in prison. Years passed after the courts vacated their death sentences before their resentencings — 6 years for one of them, 8 years for the other — and the prisons kept them in solitary confinement on death row the whole time, without any regular review of their housing status. The two prisoners brought federal civil rights suits, alleging that keeping them in solitary on death row violated their due process liberty interests. In today’s opinion, the court affirmed on qualified immunity grounds but established a precedent that will bar prisons from continuing this appalling practice.

Joining McKee were Fuentes and Roth. Arguing counsel were James Bilsborrow of New York (a former Smith clerk) for the prisoners and John Knorr III of the OAG for the defendants.

6 thoughts on “New opinion: Third Circuit sets limits on death-row solitary confinement

  1. John

    If the defendants seek cert, I’d bet a large pile of money on a GVR. SCOTUS has told the Courts of Appeals, especially CA9, that it is impossible for a Court of Appeals to clearly establish federal law. The statute is clear – only SCOTUS can clearly establish federal law. I hope this case goes en banc so this bad precedent doesn’t stay on the books (because I doubt defendants will seek cert).

    1. Matthew Stiegler Post author

      I’m more familiar offhand with habeas law than civil rights law. In habeas, only Supreme Court holdings can set clearly established law. But the issue here is qualified immunity, not 2254(d). Is the same thing true in this context?

    2. PhilFan

      John – I’m embarrassed that I don’t know the answer to your point off the top of my head. If you are correct, couldn’t it be the case that the First through Eleventh Circuits agree that it is clearly established that a practice is unconstitutional, but the D.C. Circuit disagrees, and if SCOTUS never resolves the “split,” it wouldn’t be “clearly established?” Doesn’t smell right to me.

      Also, here is one post (from 2012) that would seem to suggest you shouldn’t wager any pile of money on this, large or small:

  2. John

    Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 601, 618 (1999), says that if a single lower court judge disagrees with CA3’s reasoning then it can’t be clearly established law for purpose s of qualified immunity until SCOTUS rules on the issue.

    1. Matthew Stiegler Post author

      I read Wilson differently. It refers to “such an undeveloped state of the law” and “a split among the Federal Circuits,” not “a single lower court judge disagree[ing].”

      And, even if Wilson did say that, it wouldn’t support the assertion that your large pile of money depended on, that “it is impossible for a Court of Appeals to clearly establish federal law.”

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