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U.S. Supreme Court toughens Sec. 1983

Washington – A unanimous (except for the recused Justice Elena Kagan) Supreme Court has held that plaintiffs bringing sec. 1983 actions against a municipality must show that their injury was caused by a municipal policy or custom, regardless of whether the action is for monetary, injunctive or declarative relief.

The ruling in Los Angeles County v. Humphries was the only opinion the court handed down Nov. 30.

The court then heard oral arguments in two cases: a case that will determine the reliance standard in ERISA actions, and a controversial case involving a California judicial ruling authorizing the release of tens of thousands of prisoners in an effort to relieve prisoner overcrowding.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed to stress the slow progress of other attempts to relieve prison overcrowding – a situation that has led to horrendous living condition in correctional facilities.

“When are you going to avoid the needless deaths?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked attorney Carter G. Phillips, according to a McClatchy report. “When are you going to avoid or get around people sitting in their own feces for days in a dazed state?”

“How much longer do we have to wait (for improvements)? Another 20 years?” pressed Ginsburg.

But other justices, including Justice Samuel Alito, worried of the consequences of a mass release.

“If I were a citizen of California, I’d be very concerned about the release of 40,000 prisoners,” Alito said, according to the AP.

SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston suggests that this case could split the Court, leaving the deciding vote in the hands of Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“And, if what Kennedy said controls how he would be voting on the final outcome, it seemed that he would not be willing to overturn that release order in its entirety, but would find ways to indicate that the remedy had to be reshaped or pared down in its scope,” Denniston wrote.

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