Margo Schlanger


Civil Rights Injunctions Over Time: A Case Study of Jail and Prison Court Orders

Margo Schlanger

Lawyers obtained the first federal court orders governing prison and jail conditions in the 1960s. This and other types of civil rights injunctive practice flourished in the 1970s and early 1980s. But a conventional wisdom has developed that such institutional reform litigation peaked long ago and is now moribund. This Article’s longitudinal account of jail and prison court-order litigation establishes that, to the contrary, correctional court-order litigation did not decline in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Rather, there was essential continuity from the early 1980s until 1996, when enactment of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) reduced both the stock of old court orders and the flow of new court orders. Even today, ten years after passage of the PLRA, the civil rights injunction is more alive in the prison and jail setting than the conventional wisdom recognizes. Yet while the volume of court-order litigation had, prior to 1996, remained stable, the nature of court-order practice changed from a “kitchen sink” model to something much more precise. Where in the 1970s litigation tended to be broad in scope, with loose standards of causation and sweeping remedies, through the 1980s and 1990s litigation grew ever more resource-intensive, and addressed increasingly narrow topics with more rigorous proof and causation requirements. This Article argues that this change was caused not only by the increasing conservativism of the federal bench, but more interestingly by a generalized skepticism about issues of causation in law, the increased presence of large pro bono firms accustomed to a resource-intensive mode of litigation, and the salience of several extraordinarily extensive litigations as models.