Amicus continues to feature editorial posts written by one of CRCL’s new General Board members. Today’s post discusses a recent Supreme Court decision and its effects on the rights of prisoners.

In a relatively little-noted decision last term, the Supreme Court favored a particular vision of federalism over the protection of religious freedom. The 6-2 ruling, in Sossamon v. Texas, barred money damages in private actions brought by prisoners against state and local governments under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). 

The technical point at issue in Sossamon was whether the statute’s authorization of “appropriate relief” against governments was explicit enough to constitute a waiver of state sovereign immunity. Writing for the majority, Justice Thomas reasoned that “appropriate relief” is ambiguous enough that in this instance it authorizes only injunctive relief, not monetary damages. In a thorough dissent, Justice Sotomayor pointed out that this reasoning ends up reversing traditional remedy principles, by which equitable relief is granted only if a damage award is insufficient, and that there is no particular reason to think that the phrase “appropriate relief” is explicit enough to allow injunctions but not monetary damages.

By ruling out monetary damages in private RLUIPA actions, the Court erected a significant obstacle to private enforcement of Free Exercise rights under the RLUIPA standard. As Justice Sotomayor’s dissent points out, a prison system sued under RLUIPA can moot any potential injunctive remedy by simply transferring a plaintiff prisoner to another facility, leaving the plaintiff without any available judicial remedy; in any event, injunctive relief may be “of cold comfort to the victims of serious, non-recurring violations.” Sossamon also eliminates the incentive effect that damage awards can have on institutional behavior. And coupled with the already draconian provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Sossamon continues a trend of denying prisoners any effective opportunity for the enforcement of their rights.

It remains to be seen whether Sossamon removes the possibility of money damages in land-use cases, the other category of state action to which RLUIPA applies. In light of the Supreme Court’s Free Exercise jurisprudence in the past couple of decades, it would be a predictable irony if conservative religious groups were hurt by another decision supported largely by the Court’s conservative majority. RLUIPA was passed in response to the Court’s striking down of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which in turn was Congress’s 1993 response to the Court’s decision in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), that ended the “substantial burden” test that the Court had previously applied to governmental actions that interfered with the free exercise of religion. Sossamon is just the latest in a line of cases that value state sovereignty and the protection of institutional defendants over religious liberty, despite a bipartisan consensus in the elected branches that the Court’s interpretation of the Constitution on this issue is off track. Thus, Sossamon demonstrates that legislative action to protect civil liberties can be insufficient when it meets with a hostile Supreme Court majority.