Wilkinson v. Dotson

PETITIONER:Reginald A. Wilkinson, Director, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, et al.
RESPONDENT:William Dwight Dotson, et al.
LOCATION:Meramec River

DOCKET NO.: 03-287
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 544 US 74 (2005)
GRANTED: Mar 22, 2004
ARGUED: Dec 06, 2004
DECIDED: Mar 07, 2005

Alan Edward Untereiner – argued the cause for Respondent Dotson
Douglas R. Cole – argued the cause for Petitioners
John Q. Lewis – argued the cause for Respondent Johnson
Leonard Yelsky – for 2,974 Former and Current Ohio Inmates et al.

Facts of the case

Ohio state prisoners Rogerico Johnson and William Dwight Dotson separately alleged their parole proceedings violated due process. Each sued the Ohio prison system under a section of the U.S. Code – section 1983 – which allows prisoners to challenge conditions of confinement. The district courts dismissed the prisoners’ claims. The courts ruled their claims challenging parole decisions actually challenged their sentences and that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision inHeck v. Humphrey (1994) barred prisoners from using section 1983 to do this. The prisoners could make their claims only under the section of the U.S. Code that allows prisoners to petition for habeas corpus. A federal appellate court reversed the district courts’ decisions.


(1) May a prisoner bring a claim under 42 U.S.C. 1983 claiming that his parole proceedings violate due process, even though success on the merits of the claim would result only in a new parole hearing and would not necessarily guarantee earlier release from prison? (2) Does a federal court judgment ordering a new parole hearing “necessarily imply the invalidity of” the decision at the previous parole hearing and therefore challenge the sentence itself?

Media for Wilkinson v. Dotson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – December 06, 2004 in Wilkinson v. Dotson

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 07, 2005 in Wilkinson v. Dotson

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Justice Breyer has the opinion of the court to announce in Wilkinson versus Datson, No. 03-287.

Stephen G. Breyer:

This case which arises in the context of state prisoners involves a relationship between two federal statutes.

Now the first of them is the basic civil rights statute 42 U.S.C. Section 1983; and the second is the habeas corpus statute.

Now, the first, the civil rights statute, allows claims by a plaintiff saying that the state, the state defendant in the individual usually works for the state acting under color of state law has deprived the plaintiff of the federal constitutional right among other things.

Now the second allows a state prisoner to claim that he or she is being held in violation of the Federal Constitution.

The language is quite similar and overlaps because obviously it bring held against the Federal Constitution here being deprived of the federal right, but that is what creates the complexity.

And it arises here in the context of state parole procedures as the plaintiff are saying that those state parole procedures violate federal constitutional rights.

So, can the prisoner bring his claim under civil right statute 1983?

Does he have to use the habeas statute?

Does he have his choice?

What is supposed to happen?

And you might think it does not matter what happens just choose one of the other.

But it does matter because if he goes with the civil right statute he does not have to exhaust all of his claims to the same extent in State Courts, for example, as he would if he went under the habeas statute; he would have a harder burden exhausting all these remedies

So, the prisoners would like to go under the civil right statute, and our case says they can.

Now, the analysis here is resting heavily on precedent.

First case really that got roses was a case called Preiser versus Rodriguez, and the court there in 1973 notice that the language of the two statutes both seem to permit these.

And that was a case in which the prisoner wanted to get good time back.

Now good time means you get out earlier.

Well, he had been deprived of his good time that meant got out later.

He wanted to get the good time back which would mean he would get out earlier.

So what the court said is we see what you want, what you are trying to get here is you are trying to get out of jail sooner and if you win you will, because that good time credit gives you a right to get out.

Now, that is what habeas is about.

That is a classic habeas case that lies at the core of traditional habeas corpus.

You are challenging the fact or duration of your confinement.

You are seeking a legal shortening of your term of confinement.

You are talking about the very duration of physical confinement.

So, you got to go under habeas.

You cannot use this more general civil right statute because you have a classical habeas case.

And then the next case Wolff versus McDonnell, the prisoner was challenging procedures.

We think whether like parole procedures, traditional disciplinary procedures, and the court says you do not have to go under habeas you can go under 1983 and that is because if you win you are not going to get out.

Stephen G. Breyer:

what you are going to get is more procedure.

Well, there were two later cases which I will spare you Heck versus Humphrey and Edward versus Balisok but we think they were consistent with what I have just said, and when we take them all together we think they show with certain qualifications I also would not get into.

That a state prisoner civil rights action i.e. the 1983 action is barred, and he has to go to the more exhausting habeas corpus if success in his action would necessarily demonstrate the invalidity of his confinement or its duration.

Now, the actions of the state prisoners before us if they are successful will not necessarily demonstrate the invalidity of their confinement or its duration.

Rather if they are successful at most will happen is they will get more parole proceedings, and those parole proceedings may or they may not bring about their speedier release.

That means that they can bring their actions under the civil rights statute 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 and they do not have to satisfy habeas corpus’ more onerous exhaustion requirements.

That is the conclusion the Sixth Circuit came to.

We affirm.

Justice Scalia has filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Thomas joins; Justice Kennedy has filed a dissenting opinion.