People For the American Way

Biden Judge’s Unanimous Opinion Reverses Lower Court Dismissal of Complaint Concerning Solitary Confinement

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Biden Judge’s Unanimous Opinion Reverses Lower Court Dismissal of Complaint Concerning Solitary Confinement

Judge Dana Douglas, nominated by President Biden to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, wrote a unanimous opinion that reversed a district court dismissal of a prisoner’s complaint that he was held in solitary confinement for more than ten months without a hearing or other due process. The decision in Carmouche v Hooper was issued in August, 2023


What is this Case About?  

 Ricardo Carmouche filed a federal complaint contending that he was being held in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison for more than ten months after a 30-day disciplinary sentence had expired without a hearing, administrative review, or other procedural due process. Among other allegations, Carmouche contends that he is being held in administrative segregation “at the whim” of an assistant warden, who has disregarded a review board determination that Carmouche is eligible for return to the general population.

The district court dismissed Camouche’s complaint without any discovery or a hearing. In large part, this was based on the fact that his solitary confinement had, as of the lower court ruling, lasted sixteen months, which was less than the “threshold” of 2 ½ years that the lower court believed had been established by the Fifth Circuit. Carmouche appealed.


How did Judge Douglas and the Fifth Circuit Rule and Why is it Important?                                                                     

Judge Douglas’ opinion for the Fifth Circuit reversed the lower court and sent the case back so the case could proceed. This must  include a more comprehensive evaluation of  Carmouche’s administrative segregation.

Judge Douglas specifically ruled that the lower court had misinterpreted previous Fifth Circuit decisions as setting a 2 ½ year minimum “threshold” for claims concerning solitary confinement. No such threshold exists, Judge Douglas explained, and lower courts must instead apply a “multi-faceted legal test” suggested by the Supreme Court and other appellate decisions to evaluate such claims. In Carmouche’s case, she went on, it was unclear whether the administrative segregation was still continuing, whether it is affecting his release date, what are the precise conditions of his confinement, what is its justification, and whether the confinement was continuing indefinitely at the whim of an assistant warden. These and related questions should be evaluated by the lower court. Judge Douglas also ruled that the court had erred in failing to permit Carmouche to amend his complaint to allege additional facts in his case against prison officials.

In addition to giving Carmouche the opportunity to proceed with his case, Judge Douglas’ opinion is  important because it makes clear the standards for evaluating claims of improper solitary confinement and that no arbitrary threshold for the length of such confinement exists in order for such claims to go forward in the Fifth Circuit, which includes Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi. Social science and other evidence is “clear” that solitary confinement causes “long-lasting harm.”  Judge Douglas’ opinion will be important in the future to the many individuals who undergo such confinement. In addition, the ruling serves as another reminder of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded Biden nominees like Judge Douglas to our federal courts.