This term the US Supreme Court heard the case of Murphy v. Smith. This is a fun case because it demonstrates how tedious, and one might say small, much of the work of that court really is. On one day, the Supreme Court decides on fundamental constitutional issues that define the structure of our political system and society, on the next day, in a different case, it parses through the text of an obscure statute trying to figure out what some completely messed up wording written by Congress in the middle of the night was supposed to mean, in order to settle a case in which the parties are fighting over a few thousand dollars. The issues are always important to the parties, but the work of interpreting statutes could often, it seems, be done by a court with less prominence.
In the Murphy case, the court was tasked with making sense of 42 U. S. C. §1997e(d)(2). That federal code section deals with how attorneys fees are paid in lawsuits brought by prisoners. When a prisoner wins a lawsuit against the government, because, for example, he was beaten by a prison guard, he can win a damage award and an award for his attorney’s fees. Congress decided that despite that award, a prisoner should be required to pay some of his own attorneys fees, and that some of his damage award should be used to pay his attorneys fees. The statute that Congress wrote uses wording that, when one focuses on it, is totally unclear.
“a portion of the [prisoner’s] judgment (not to exceed 25 percent) shall be applied to satisfy the amount of attorney’s fees awarded against the defendant.”
The central question is whether the judge who is deciding upon how much of a plaintiff’s damages award to use for plaintiff’s attorney’s fee is entitled to use his/her discretion in setting that amount, OR, whether, alternatively, s/he must use as much of the damages award as needed to cover the attorneys fees, but never more than 25% of the damages award.
The oral argument is worth a listen because it demonstrates how hard working and serious the justices are, even on minor matters.
Spoiler: Neil Gorsuch wrote in his opinion that the rule is the latter.
The opinion demonstrates how judges go through language with a fine tooth comb, so to speak, in order to determine meaning. It is also one of those opinions in which the judge strives to add flair to an altogether minor and laborious subject.