A Tale of Two Laws: The U.S. Congress Confronts Habeas Corpus Petitions and Section 1983 Lawsuits



Actions by state prisoners have comprised a large and growing body of litigation in the U.S. federal courts over the past thirty years. State prisoners can challenge the validity of their state trial court convictions (habeas corpus petitions) and the constitutionality of the conditions of their confinement to state prisons and jails (Section 1983 lawsuits). Currently, one out of every five civil cases filed in the federal system is brought by a jail or prison inmate.

When in the past did these cases begin to arise? What is the present trend? What does the future hold concerning the number of cases likely to be filed?

These questions are at the heart of the current research. Care is needed in addressing these queries because it is neither easy nor obvious to know what propels the volume of litigation. Moreover, the future is especially difficult to predict in light of recent legislation adopted by the United States Congress to limit the number of habeas corpus petitions and the number of Section 1983 lawsuits filed each year.

The unique contribution of the current research is threefold. First, an improved methodology is used to describe past patterns and to forecast future trends. Simply stated, prisoner litigation is hypothesized to be related to the number of prisoners. As the number of prisoners increases, the volume of litigation increases proportionately. What is not obvious about this relationship is that it has persisted over the past decades despite substantial changes in legal doctrines designed to affect the filing of the litigation. Second, the effects of two major congressional actions passed in 1996 to limit prisoner litigation are examined and assessed for their success in achieving their intended objectives. The first of these, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which sought to restrict habeas corpus petitions, is judged to have virtually no impact. The second piece of legislation, the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act, which sought to curtail lawsuits against correctional officials, appears to have lowered the volume of litigation in the short-term, but has not disrupted the underlying link between the number of prisoners and the number of lawsuits. Finally, estimates are made of the future volume of litigation and the corresponding number of federal judges needed to resolve prisoner litigation. These estimates have the advantage of being based on significant statistical relationships and accounting for the effects of recent congressional action.