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Supreme Court hears arguments on government immunity, prisoner rights

The US Supreme Court [official website] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF] in two cases on Tuesday. In Rehberg v. Paulk [transcript, PDF; JURIST report], the court considered whether government officials who act as "complaining witnesses" to initiate a prosecution by providing false testimony in a grand jury hearing are immune to civil suits. The government argued that a government agent is entitled to qualified immunity and that it is well accepted that prosecution may go forward initially based on false testimony. Respondents argued that, under Malley v. Briggs [opinion text], evidence of malicious intention surrounding the grand jury proceeding, not just the testimony, may be used to instigate a civil action. The court wrestled both with what types of evidence were acceptable as well as the definition of a "complaining witness" in federal criminal trial.

In Minneci v. Pollard [transcript, PDF; JURIST report], the court will determine whether federal inmates may sue employees of private prisons where the plaintiff has adequate alternative remedies in state court and defendants have no employment or contractual relationship with the government. The court appeared to be strongly convinced by the government-petitioner's argument that Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics [opinion text] should continue to be used as a last resort and not expanded when state law provides adequate redress: "Over the last 3 decades, the Court has made clear that Bivens remedies are disfavored and will only be authorized in narrow situations where there are no adequate alternative means for redressing a plaintiff's injuries and no other factor counsels hesitation. Respondent has satisfied neither criteria. He has not shown that he lacked a traditional tort remedy for the injuries of which he complains, and Petitioners' status as employees of a private contractor rather than the government at a minimum gives rise to factors counseling hesitation." Respondents argued that Bivens casts a wide net and allows any specific civil action that is not delineated by that state's law, whereas several justices argued with the attorney that almost any action could be addressed by state tort law. Respondent also suggested that as his client was a federal prisoner prosecuted by the federal government, with only access to federal law in the prison library, he should be allowed to address his claims in federal court.

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