Howe v. Smith

LOCATION: Minnesota State Legislature

DOCKET NO.: 80-5392
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 452 US 473 (1981)
ARGUED: Apr 28, 1981
DECIDED: Jun 17, 1981

Barbara E. Etkind - on behalf of the federal Respondents
John J. Easton, Jr. - on behalf of the state Respondent
William A. Nelson - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case


Media for Howe v. Smith

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 28, 1981 in Howe v. Smith

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments next in Robert Howe v. Attorney General.

Mr. Nelson, I think you may proceed whenever you're ready.

William A. Nelson:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The petitioner is a Vermont convict who is in prison, not in Vermont, but in the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.

He challenges his incarceration by the United States and asks his return to the custody of Vermont.

The case involves two statutes, two federal statutes, and turns on the construction of one of them.

Section 4001(a) of Title 13 guarantees that no citizen shall be imprisoned by the United States except pursuant to an act of Congress.

Section 5003(a) of the same title authorizes the Attorney General to accept custody of state prisoners when the Director of the Bureau of Prisons certifies that proper and adequate treatment facilities and personnel are available.

The question is the construction of that section.

William H. Rehnquist:

What was Mr. Howe convicted of?

William A. Nelson:

He was convicted of first degree murder.

William H. Rehnquist:

And do you have any answer of your own as to what would be the proper and suitable correctional treatment for him?

William A. Nelson:

Well, I think that the 2nd Circuit's view is reasonable, that his incarceration is not for treatment at all but simply for deterrence.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, do you think... in other words, you think that it must be treatment of some sort?

William A. Nelson:


We feel that the statute permits inmates to come into the federal system for purposes of treatment.

William H. Rehnquist:

What if the Vermont penal authorities decide that no amount of treatment can ever rehabilitate this person, that he's simply got to be locked up for a good long time in order to keep him from doing it again.

William A. Nelson:

Well, they are certainly entitled to that and then Mr. Howe is their problem.

Then Mr. Howe must be dealt with as many difficult correctional problems must be dealt with by the state.

There are options other than sending him to the federal system.

William H. Rehnquist:

But you say the federal system has no right to receive him under these circumstances.

William A. Nelson:

That's right.

Except for treatment needs.

Warren E. Burger:

Did I hear you correctly to either say or imply that there is some legal obligation to treat him?

William A. Nelson:

I think there is an obligation to treat him so long as he is in the federal system.

Warren E. Burger:

Why do you make it any different when it's in federal custody as a surrogate for the state, than when he is in the state custody with the state doing it on its own behalf?

William A. Nelson:

Well, a prisoner committed to state custody is simply committed to the Commissioner of Corrections or to the prison system for whatever purpose imprisonment may serve.

The same is true of a prisoner committed to federal prison.

He is simply committed to a penal or correctional institution.

Potter Stewart:

That is, after a federal criminal trial.