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Federal Defenders of New York v. Federal Bureau of Prisons

In Federal Defenders of New York v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit considered whether the ability to sue over constitutional violations is limited by a “zone of interests” test.

Case Summary

The Federal Defenders of New York is a non-profit organization that represents indigent people in criminal cases. It alleged that in early 2019, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the warden of a Brooklyn detention center unconstitutionally restricted attorney visits during the months following an electrical fire, depriving the Federal Defenders’ clients of their Sixth Amendment right to counsel. To remedy this ongoing constitutional violation, the Federal Defenders went to court and sought an injunction requiring regular attorney access to be restored. Although the district court ruled that the Federal Defenders had standing to bring this claim, the court nevertheless dismissed the case upon concluding that the organization lacked a cause of action under the Sixth Amendment. According to the district court, the injury suffered by the Federal Defenders did not fall within the “zone of interests” that the Amendment protects, because “the right to counsel is a right that is personal to the accused.” The Federal Defenders appealed this decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

CAC, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the Rutherford Institute, filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Federal Defenders in the Second Circuit. Our brief made several points. First, it described how the equitable jurisdiction of the federal courts—that is, their power to order injunctive relief—has long included the power to require the government to remedy constitutional violations, whether or not a statute provides a cause of action authorizing a plaintiff to sue.

Second, our brief explained that no “zone of interests” test limits the ability of injured plaintiffs to bring constitutional claims. The zone-of-interests test applies only to claims that a statute has been violated. This is because, as the Supreme Court has made clear, the test is a tool of statutory interpretation used to determine who Congress intended to protect when it creates new rights and duties by law and authorizes persons to sue to enforce those rights and duties. Because constitutional claims seeking injunctions do not depend on new rights created by Congress or on a legislatively conferred cause of action, there is no congressional intent to discern—and thus no “zone of interests” test to apply.

Third, we explained that the district court appeared to have conflated the question of whether a plaintiff has a cause of action with the separate concept of “prudential standing.” As the Supreme Court has explained, however, these are different inquiries not to be confused with each other.

Finally, our brief described some of the adverse consequences that would flow from imposing a zone-of-interests test on constitutional claims. Doing so would limit the traditional availability of injunctive relief for constitutional violations, barring many plaintiffs from accessing the courts when the government acts unlawfully.

The Second Circuit vacated the district court’s decision and ordered the district court to reconsider the plaintiffs’ Sixth Amendment claim. As the Second Circuit explained, the district court “misunderstood the basis” of this claim, which was brought “under the federal courts’ inherent equitable powers.” Although the district court had reasoned that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel belongs only to the accused, the Second Circuit noted that the court “overlooked” a “well-drawn line of precedent establishing that a plaintiff may invoke the court’s equitable powers to enjoin a defendant from violating constitutional provisions that do not, themselves, grant any legal rights to private plaintiffs.” The Second Circuit accordingly remanded the case for further proceedings, while encouraging the parties to try to resolve their dispute through mediation.

Case Timeline

  • August 21, 2019

    CAC, the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the Rutherford Institute filed a brief amici curiae

    2d Cir. Amici Br.
  • March 20, 2020

    The Supreme Court issues its decision

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