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Trump Judges Deny Disclosure of Information About Challenging Prison Conditions: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

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Trump Judges Deny Disclosure of Information About Challenging Prison Conditions: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.

Trump Eleventh Circuit judges Elizabeth Branch and Robert Luck in In re Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections compelled the district court to grant a motion to the Florida state prison system for a protective order that would restrict disclosure of information about prison conditions that people in prison alleged amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

Formerly and currently incarcerated people at a Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) facility filed a class action lawsuit for allegedly cruel and unusual prison conditions at a state facility. During discovery, they requested information that prison officials believed was confidential and that if disclosed, would pose a security risk to prison staff. As a condition to disclosure, the prison officials asked that the confidential portions be designated as “attorney’s eyes only” to limit access to the documents to only the plaintiffs’ attorney.

The plaintiffs asked the district court to direct FDC to produce the information free of any designation. The district court sided with them and concluded that FDC did not provide sufficient proof that disclosure of the information would pose a security and safety risk or any potential mischief.

FDC moved for a protective order to designate certain orders, manuals, and surveillance information as confidential, as the documents contained “highly sensitive safety and security information” for the prisons. The district court denied FDC’s motion.

FDC sought relief from the Eleventh Circuit by seeking a writ of mandamus alleging that the district court abused its discretion.

In March 2020, Judges Elizabeth Branch and Robert Luck agreed that the district court abused its discretion by denying the FDC’s motion for entry of a protective order, finding that FDC’s right to relief was clear and undeniable.

Judge Adalberto Jordan strongly dissented. He explained that a writ of mandamus is a drastic and an extraordinary remedy reserved for extraordinary situations; this case did not rise to that level. The district court applied the correct legal standard to conclude that the FDC did not show good cause for their requested protective order. There is no legal rule requiring a particular result be “clear and indisputable” and the possibility for mischief which FDC raised as a reason not to disclose was simply insufficient. Judge Jordan went on to say that his Eleventh Circuit colleagues were “merely substituting their own judgment for that of the district court,” which is not appropriate in a “traditional abuse of discretion review, much less in an order of mandamus” review.