482 U. S. 755
June 19, 1987
Aaron Helms was put in solitary confinement based on suspicions that he helped stir up a prison riot. Helms felt the evidence relied upon by the prison officials was insufficient, and that he should have been given a hearing. Accordingly, he filed a 1983 suit against the prison. One federal court found a due process violation, but remanded the case for determination as to whether the prison officials had immunity. The lower court found immunity, and also held the case moot because Helms had since been released on parole. At this stage, Helms tried to recover attorney’s fees under Section 1988, on the theory that a due process violation had been found.
The Court ruled 5-4 that Helms could not take advantage of Section 1988. The law allowed attorney’s fees only for ‘prevailing parties’, and because Helms never got a single shred of actual relief for his alleged grievances, he did not qualify. Scalia’s majority opinion downplayed the significance of the due process ruling, noting that it gained Helms absolutely nothing in the end. One does not ‘prevail,’ Scalia said, merely because a court treats a single aspect of a petitioner’s overall case favorably. That the prison changed its rules afterward did not matter either, since Helms himself obtained nothing of value from this alteration. Ultimately, some direct redress of a claimed violation must occur before 1988 may be invoked.
Marshall dissented, and was joined by Brennan, Blackmun, and Stevens. He pointed out that no court ever disagreed with the finding of a due process violation. Even though immunity and mootness prevented remedial relief, the judicial declaration still stood that Helms had his legal rights infringed. Furthermore, Marshall argued that the prison’s rule change did benefit Helms, because he was actually back in prison by the time the case reached the Supreme Court. Marshall’s dissent tries hard, but I must side with Scalia on this one. The line had to be drawn somewhere, and the dissenters stretched the term ‘prevailing’ way too far.