People For the American Way

Biden Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Allow Cruel and Unusual Punishment Claim to Go Forward

News and Analysis
Biden Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Allow Cruel and Unusual Punishment Claim to Go Forward

Judge Stephanie Davis, nominated by President Biden to the Sixth Circuit court of appeals, cast the deciding vote in a 2-1 ruling that reversed a lower court and allowed a prisoner to proceed with a claim that prison officials had subjected him and other prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment. He contended that officials had knowingly provided inferior coats that did not afford the “minimum protection from cold, rain and wind” that he and others were forced to endure. The January 2024 decision was in Smith v Bush,2024 U.S.App. Lexis 1358 (Sixth Cir. Jan. 19, 2024)


What Happened in this Case?

 John Robert Smith was confined at Carson City Correctional Facility in northern Michigan. According to his complaint, when the zipper on his old coat broke, officials issued him a replacement in October, 2022. He soon found, however, that the new coats lacked an outer shell that would provide the “minimum protection” necessary from “extreme cold temperature, freezing rain, and high winds” in the “severe Michigan winter.” In addition, he maintained, he was “forced to stand outside” for “long periods of time” because of “mandatory daily callouts to the medication lines” and other required activities.

Smith wrote letters to and filed grievances against prison officials, all of which were rejected. He then filed a civil rights suit in federal court, maintaining that officials were responsible for cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. He contended specifically that the prison warden and deputy director of the state prison department were “aware of the need” for an adequate coat but had “chosen deliberately to ignore the deficiency” in what was provided and to disregard “basic human decency” concerning the conditions of confinement.

A federal magistrate in Michigan considered the case. Without allowing any discovery, he found that Smith’s claims were not “plausible” and dismissed the case. Smith appealed to the Sixth Circuit.


How Did Judge Davis and the Sixth Circuit Rule and Why is it Important?

Judge Davis cast the deciding vote in a 2-1 ruling that vacated the lower court ruling to give Smith the opportunity to obtain discovery and submit evidence to try to prove his claims. The majority carefully reviewed the complaint and the law, and explained that, under the Eighth Amendment, prison officials have a duty to provide “humane conditions of confinement,” including “adequate food, shelter, clothing, and medical care,” and that they cannot show “deliberate indifference” to such needs. Smith’s complaint, they went on, sufficiently alleged such a violation, and it was not enough for the magistrate to dismiss his claims as not “plausible” without giving him the chance to prove his case.

Judge Davis’ deciding vote is obviously important to Smith’s efforts to obtain justice and minimally adequate treatment.  It also sets an important precedent in the Sixth Circuit, which includes Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, concerning the obligation of courts to take seriously complaints by confined persons of unconstitutional mistreatment and not just dismiss them as not “plausible.” In addition, the ruling is an example of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded Biden nominees like Judge Davis to our federal courts.