Low Riding

Article excerpt

Jackson v. District of Columbia, 89 F. Supp. 2d 48 (D.D.C. 2000), aff'd, 2000 WL 1013583 (D.C. Cir. July 19, 2000) (order granting motion for summary affirmance).

Jackson and his co-plaintiffs were members of avowed religious faiths that forbade adult men to cut their hair or shave their beards.(1) They sought declaratory and injunctive relief to prevent the defendants--the District of Columbia, the Director of D.C. Corrections, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons--from subjecting them (or anyone else) to a grooming policy.(2) The plaintiffs asserted that the grooming policy, which prohibited beards and dreadlocks and required inmates to keep their head hair shorter than one inch in length,(3) violated their fights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act(4) and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.(5)

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss,(6) arguing in part that the plaintiffs had failed to exhaust administrative remedies before filing suit in federal court, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).(7) The plaintiffs responded, in part, that because pursuit of administrative remedies would have been futile, they need not have exhausted such remedies before the commencement of federal litigation.(8) The court agreed that exhaustion of remedies "would be futile, in the sense that plaintiffs would not have secured a religious exemption to the grooming policy even if they had strictly complied with Virginia Corrections' inmate-grievance protocol."(9)

Still, the D.C. district court granted the defendants' motion, ruling in part that there was no futility exception in the PLRA.(10) The court concentrated on the legislative history of the PLRA, which was adopted by Congress in 1996,(11) and concluded that Congress intended no futility exception.(12) In Jackson and similar cases, government defendants have argued that "the legislative evolution [of the PLRA] irrefutably establishes that Congress intended exhaustion to be mandatory regardless of the effectiveness of the available administrative process."(13)

This Case Note argues that courts cannot make sense of Congress's intent when substantive legislation is adopted by appropriations rider. The legislative history of the PLRA, a prime example of a piece of substantive legislation passed as a rider, is too clouded for a court to determine easily what Congress intended concerning exhaustion and futility. Moreover, the bill to which the PLRA was attached was the final compromise in an unprecedented budget battle, a battle in which, for the first time in recent American history, partisan rancor led the federal government to shut its doors. The Republican Party, widely viewed as the obstinate participant in that budget dispute, faced strong political pressure to pass the bill at all costs, even if specific provisions did not reflect congressional intent. Based on the lack of clear legislative intent and the context of government shutdowns, the Supreme Court should declare a new principle of statutory interpretation based on the central lesson of Jackson: that, in the nascent era of government shutdowns, appropriations riders should be narrowly construed in order to avoid misinterpreting congressional intent.(14)


A number of circuit courts across the country have wrestled with the issue of exhaustion under the PLRA and have reached varying conclusions.(15) To answer the question of whether Congress intended a futility exception when it adopted the PLRA, the Jackson court looked at two pieces of evidence. First, the court noted that the words "plain, speedy, and effective" were deleted by the PLRA.(16) Second, the court quoted at length the statement of a single legislator, Representative Lobiondo,(17) to support its argument that Congress intended exhaustion to be a mandatory requirement lacking a futility exception.(18)

The court read far too much into the deletion of the "plain, speedy, and effective" language and Representative Lobiondo's statement. …