Invading an Article III Court's Inherent Equitable Powers: Separation of Powers and the Immediate Termination Provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act

By Cheng, Theodore K. | Washington and Lee Law Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Invading an Article III Court's Inherent Equitable Powers: Separation of Powers and the Immediate Termination Provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act


Cheng, Theodore K., Washington and Lee Law Review


I. Introduction

The separation of powers doctrine is fundamental to our constitutional system of government. It exhibits both the genius of the Framers and their concern for protecting individual due process rights. By maintaining integrity among the branches, the checks and balances envisioned by the Framers are ensured of proper operation; by appreciating the structural limitations within each pillar of the national government, the election of public officials and the vindication of civil rights and liberties through the judicial system are fully realized. Indeed, the purpose of the separation of powers doctrine has been described as serving "both to protect the role of the independent judiciary within the constitutional scheme of tripartite government, and to safeguard litigants' right to have claims decided before judges who are free from potential domination by other branches of government. "2 In short, the doctrine is "basic and vital" to ensuring individual liberty, "namely, to preclude a commingling of the[ ] essentially different powers of government in the same hands."3

This Article addresses the separation of powers doctrine in the context of the increasing trend of Congress to legislate in areas that encroach upon the inherent adjudicatory powers of Article III courts. In so legislating, Congress is testing the boundaries where the legislative and judicial powers intersect. For example, one unsuccessfid attempt was the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA).4 Congress purported to provide greater protection to religious rights pursuant to section five of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution5 by subjecting any regulation substantially burdening a person's exercise of religion to strict scrutiny.6 The United States Supreme Court declared the statute unconstitutional four years later, reasoning that Congress only has the power to enforce the provisions of section five of the Fourteenth Amendment, and not to determine what constitutes a constitutional violation of it.7

Another recent congressional effort to encroach upon the adjudicatory powers of Article HI courts was the enactment of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act,8 which fashioned major changes to substantive federal criminal law. For example, one provision of that act amends the federal habeas corpus laws to read:

(d) An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim

(1) resulted in a decisionthat was contrary to, or involved anunreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or

(2) resudtedina decision thatwasbasedonansonable determination. of the facts in light ofthe evidence presented in the State court proceeding. 9

The statute arguably places limitations on a federal court's adjudication of a constitutional right.10 During a recent en banc argument before the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, one judge voiced his concern that the language in section (d)(1) appeared to regulate a court's adjudicatory function by forcing district courts to apply congressionally determined standards.11

Against this backdrop, this Article argues that Congress violates the separation of powers doctrine when it places restrictions on the equitable remedies afforded by Article III courts that adjudicate federal constitutional rights. However, Congress does not violate the separation of powers when it similarly limits the available equitable remedies for federal statutory rights. The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA) unmistakably illustrates Congress's attempt to limit the equitable powers of Article III courts when a constitutional right is at stake.12 In an unprecedented and manifold manner, the PLRA altered the landscape of prison conditions litigation in the federal courts. …

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