20 October 2010

Sotomayor's Sympathetic Sagacity?

During her confirmation hearings, there was some controversy over a standard “Wise Latina” line that Sonia Sotomayor intoned for implementing diversity in the judiciary. Now that she is on the bench, we now can better appreciate Associate Justice Sotomayor’s sagacity.

The Supreme Court was weighing whether to hear Pitre v. Cain, a prisoner’s rights Eight Amendment case. The facts are that Anthony Pitre is a Louisiana state prisoner who was HIV-positive. Pitre wanted to get out of chores that obliged him to work in 100 degree Fahrenheit heat. So Pitre stopped taking his HIV medication. The corrections facility denied Pitre’s petitions to get lighter duty, despite his deteriorating physical conditions. Pitre complained that this was cruel and unusual punishment. Prison staff maintained that Pitre was bringing this stress on himself for not taking his medication.

The Magistrate Justice dismissed the claim as being “patently frivolous”. The Federal District Court judge agreed. The Fifth Circuit concurred. When the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, refused to hear the case on an 8 to 1 vote. Usually the denials of cert are one line orders. But Justice Sotomayor wrote a four page dissent.

Justice Sotomayor sagaciously suggested:

Pitre’s allegations, if true, describe “punitive treatment [that] amounts to gratuitous infliction of ‘wanton and unnecessary’ pain that our precedent clearly prohibits.” I cannot comprehend how a court could deem such allegations “frivolous.” Because I believe that Pitre’s complaint states an Eighth Amendment violation, I would grant the petition for a writ of certiorari and reverse the judgment below.

So a person can foolishly put themselves in peril and the authorities need to walk on eggshells to accommodate this choice. I wonder if the phrase “Letting the inmates run the asylum” rings any bells with Sotomayor.

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