Rule of Law

Wilson v. Midland County

In Wilson v. Midland County, the en banc United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is considering whether a procedural requirement the Supreme Court adopted in Heck v. Humphrey should apply to non-custodial plaintiffs, even when it functions as an absolute barrier to their ability to vindicate their constitutional rights in a federal forum.

Case Summary

Years after Erma Wilson completed a suspended sentence for a crime she maintains she did not commit, she learned that one of her prosecutors was, at the very same time he prosecuted her, also moonlighting for the judge who presided over her case.  Wilson brought an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983”) to redress this obvious violation of her right to due process.

The district court dismissed Wilson’s case in light of the Fifth Circuit’s earlier decision in Randell v. Johnson, and a panel of the Fifth Circuit affirmed. Randell held, based on its interpretation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Heck v. Humphrey, that whenever the success of a plaintiff’s Section 1983 claim would necessarily imply the invalidity of a conviction or sentence, the plaintiff must demonstrate a “favorable termination” of the underlying criminal proceedings. For plaintiffs like Wilson who are not incarcerated—unlike the plaintiff in Heck—that rule effectively acts as an absolute bar to their ability to vindicate their constitutional rights in a federal court.

Arguing that Randell is a grievous overreading of Heck, Wilson asked the full Fifth Circuit to rehear her case en banc and consider whether to overrule Randell.  The Court agreed to do so.

CAC filed an amicus brief in support of Wilson before the en banc Court arguing that Randell should be overruled for two reasons.

First, imposing a favorable-termination rule on non-custodial plaintiffs is at odds with the text and history of Section 1983. Section 1983 was passed to create a remedy for injustices wrought by corrupt state judiciaries across the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. Because state courts were often powerless to stop the violence and abuses inflicted on formerly enslaved people and their allies by the Klan, or worse, were actively working in concert with Klansmen, Section 1983 established federal courts as the chief guardians of the people’s constitutional rights.

Depriving non-custodial plaintiffs of a federal forum to vindicate their constitutional rights fundamentally undermines Section 1983. In Heck v. Humphrey, the incarcerated plaintiff could have filed a federal habeas corpus petition because the federal statute codifying that writ applies to all individuals in custody. But not being in custody, Wilson could not seek a writ of habeas corpus. Cutting off her access to Section 1983—the only other route to federal court to vindicate her constitutional rights—would leave her without a federal remedy against the precise sort of injustice inflicted by a corrupt state court that Section 1983 was enacted to address.

Second, in cases like this one, imposing a favorable-termination rule on non-custodial plaintiffs eviscerates the constitutional right to due process. When adjudicating Section 1983 cases, the Supreme Court often borrows procedural rules from the common law at the time that Section 1983 was enacted, but critically, it also requires that those rules be tailored to the particular federal constitutional right at stake. The latter requirement—ensuring that any borrowed tort rule serves the values and purposes of the asserted constitutional right—has been foregrounded by the Supreme Court in recent decisions.

In this case, imposition of a favorable-termination rule borrowed from the tort of malicious prosecution is inconsistent with the values and purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, including the guarantee of a fair trial before an impartial adjudicator. The Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that in a fair trial, the same person who made critical decisions in the prosecution of a case cannot also sit in judgement of that case. The Court has also made clear that the right to due process—and vindicating that right—is so important to organized society that even when a plaintiff has suffered no actual damages from a deprivation of her right to due process, she still is entitled to vindicate that right in a court of law.

Erma Wilson’s case, in which Ralph Petty advised both the prosecutors and the judge at the same time and even wrote legal opinions adverse to Wilson, is a textbook due process violation. Due process and the right to a fair trial would be meaningless if an impossible-to-meet procedural hurdle deprived Wilson of access to a federal forum.

The Fifth Circuit should overrule Randell and reverse the decision dismissing Erma Wilson’s case.

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