Woodford v. Ngo - Oral Argument - March 22, 2006

Woodford v. Ngo

Media for Woodford v. Ngo

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 22, 2006 in Woodford v. Ngo

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 22, 2006 in Woodford v. Ngo

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

We'll hear argument next in 05-416, Woodford versus Ngo.

Ms. Perkell.

Jennifer G. Perkell:

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

The question presented in this case is whether, in enacting the Prison Litigation Reform Act's exhaustion requirement, Congress intended to require inmates to comply with administrative grievance procedures or whether Congress intended to permit inmates to ignore those procedures.

Petitioners submit that Congress intended to require inmates to comply with administrative grievance procedures, for three principal reasons--

One, the established principle of exhaustion in the administrative law context requires a grievance... a grievant to timely comply with administrative agency proceedings.

Two, in enacting the Prison Litigation Reform Act's exhaustion requirement, Congress was responding to this Court's decision in McCarthy v. Madigan, in which this Court presumed that an express or mandatory exhaustion requirement for prisoners would necessitate compliance with prison filing deadlines.

And, three, Congress's objectives in enacting the Prison Litigation Reform Act's exhaustion requirement are directly facilitated by a rule in which inmates must comply with administrative grievance procedures, including filing deadlines; whereas, those objectives are invariably subverted when an inmate is permitted to ignore those procedures.

In the administrative law context, the established principle of exhaustion generally requires that a grievant comply with administrative agency proceedings in a proper and timely manner in order to be able to proceed to Federal Court.

In this case, Congress has, indeed, enacted an administrative exhaustion requirement.

Even the Court of Appeals that in so doing Congress was attempting to bring the exhaustion rule for prisoners more into line with established administrative exhaustion rules that apply in other contexts.

David H. Souter:

What do you say to the argument that that really is an inapposite because the 1983 proceeding is de novo?

Jennifer G. Perkell:

I would suggest... I... we concede there's that distinction.

However, I would suggest it's irrelevant for purposes of how Congress would have understood the term "exhaust" in enacting the statute.

The definition of the "principle of exhaustion" in administrative law is one in which there's an obligation to comply with the agency's grievance proceedings.

And so, that is the definition of exhaustion that Congress was presumably... I would suggest was presumably invoking in this context.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

But that's the... a function of... you want the first line decisionmaker... you need that decision, because, at the second rung, in... at the court level, deference is owed to it.

But in the prison setting, there's no deference owed to it.

So, I would think that this kind of requirement, that you must file someplace else first, a place that won't get deference, is more like the EEOC example and the Age Discrimination Act.

Jennifer G. Perkell:

Well, Your Honor, in the first instance--

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

I'm sorry, Ms. Perkell, could I ask you to speak up just a bit?

Jennifer G. Perkell:

--Oh, sure.

I--

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Thanks.

Jennifer G. Perkell:

--I apologize.

Again, we're submitting that Congress understood the term "exhaust" in a particular way, given how it's just generally used in the administrative context.

And with respect to the EEOC context, we think that that is inapposite, because primarily that... the relevant statutes in those contexts invoke the word "commence", which--

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Invoke what?

Jennifer G. Perkell:

--The word "commence" instead of "exhaust", which this Court has expressly, again, distinguished from an exhaustion requirement.

Moreover, under those statutes Congress has limited the meaning of "commencement" in such a way that this Court has interpreted Congress to expressly preclude the possibility of a procedural default by virtue of a failure to comply with State filing provisions.