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Supreme Court hears arguments on attorney's fees, obstruction of justice

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases on Wednesday morning.

The first case involves award of attorney's fees in civil rights cases. In Murphy v. Smith [transcript, PDF], Chris Murphy, a prisoner at an Illinois correctional facility, was badly beaten by two guards while he was handcuffed, crushing part of his eye socket, choking him until he was unconscious, and leaving him naked face-down in his cell until a nurse came to check on him 30 minutes later. Murphy brought suit against the guards and was awarded $307,733.82 in damages, in addition to attorney's fees. However, under Prison Litigation Reform Act 42 USC § 1997e(d)(2) (PLRA) [text], courts disagree whether the statute requires 25 percent of the awarded damages be diverted to paying attorney's fees, or whether the district court has the discretion to decide. The statute reads:

Whenever a monetary judgment is awarded in [a prisoner's civil rights suit in which fees are awarded under 42 USC § 1988], a portion of the judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorney's fees awarded against the defendant.
Here, the district court interpreted the statute to give judges the discretion, but the appeals court judge.

At oral argument Wednesday, both sides argued that section 1997e(d)(2)'s plain language supports their conclusion. Murphy argued that the statute is not subject to any mandatory language, so the phrase "not to exceed" is a suggested ceiling, rather than a fixed percentage. The guards, however, argued that the word "satisfy" creates an obligation to fulfill the 25% requirement. The Supreme Court is tasked with settling the dispute as to who should pay attorney's fees in successful civil-rights cases brought on behalf of prisoners.

Marinello v. United States [transcript, PDF], the second case heard by the Supreme Court Wednesday morning, concerns the limits of tax-law obstruction-of-justice charges. In this case, Carlo Marinello, a freight service operator, operated his business in cash. Without the direction of the IRS, he shredded bank statements and other records, without filing tax returns, but he did not withhold employment-related taxes such as payroll taxes.

At oral argument, Marinello argued that the omnibus clause of 18 USC § 1503 [text] lacks any limiting language, and without the judiciary limiting the statute, this felony could be tacked onto any tax misdemeanor charge or could potentially criminalize otherwise legal tax-planning. The government disagreed, stating that the language § 1503 is clear: obstruction of "due administration of justice" requires interference with court proceedings. The court must decide whether Marinello can be found to have "corruptly" "obstruct[ed] the due administration of" the tax law.

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