Supreme Court issues brief decisions on filing fees for prisoners and ineffective assistance of counsel
The Prison Litigation Reform Act requires that prisoners pay a percentage filing fee on a simultaneous, “per case” basis, rather than in sequential installments, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Jan. 12, in Bruce v. Samuels.
The Act, 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1915(b), requires that prisoners filing in forma pauperis pay an initial filing fee of “20 percent of the greater of” the average monthly deposits in their prison account, or the average monthly balance of the account over the preceding six months.
After that, prisoners must complete the payment of the filing fee by paying monthly installments of “20 percent of the preceding month’s income credited to the prisoner’s account.”
The issue in Bruce was over payment of the monthly installments: Should prisoners pay 20 percent of their monthly income regardless of the number of the cases they actually filed until all the fees are paid, or simultaneously pay 20 percent per case.
Resolving a circuit split, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the statutory language of the Act requires a simultaneous, per-case assessment.
The Court recognized that a per-case approach means that if a prisoner files more than five cases, “[n]othing will be left in the account to pay the sixth fee.” However, “[t]he per-case approach … better comports with the purpose of the PLRA to deter frivolous suits.”
The Court noted that the Act provides a “safety valve” provision for prisoners who have no assets and no means to pay the fee.
In a brief, per curiam opinion at the beginning the current term, the Supreme Court emphasized that courts reviewing ineffective assistance of counsel claims must assess counsel’s performance from the perspective of the time of counsel’s conduct.
In Maryland v. Kulbicki, decided Oct. 5, 2015, the Court held that an attorney who tried a case in 1995 was not ineffective in failing to challenge comparative bullet lead analysis (CBLA) testimony at the trial, even though CBLA was later discredited in the scientific community.
The Maryland Court of Appeals had ruled that counsel was ineffective in failing to discover a report published before trial which criticized CBLA analysis.
But the Supreme Court disagreed. The reasonableness of counsel’s challenged conduct must be “viewed as of the time of counsel’s conduct.”
At the time of the 1995 trial, CBLA was “widely accepted” and “courts regularly admitted CBLA,” the Court said.
The Court noted that in the pre-internet age, counsel would have had to search through numerous libraries to discover the little-known report.
“Given the uncontroversial nature of CBLA at the time of [the 1995] trial, the effect of the judgment below is to demand that lawyers go ‘looking for a needle in a haystack’ even when they have ‘reason to doubt there is any needle there,’” the Court said.