West v. Atkins

487 U. S. 42

June 20, 1988

When a prisoner received insufficient care from a doctor contractually employed by a prison, he tried to sue the doctor under Section 1983. The question was whether the doctor could be legally described as “acting under color of state law.” The lower courts did not think so, and cited a 1981 ruling called Dodson where public defenders were held immune from 1983 suits.

The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed. Blackmun said that the doctor was working for the state prison, and that the prisoner could not choose another doctor. The fact that the doctor worked for the prison only by contract was totally irrelevant. He was a state actor with respect to the prisoner. Blackmun distinguished Dodson because public defenders have a unique adversarial relationship with the government. Though doctors exercise independent professional judgment, their interests are in no way adversarial to the prison.

Scalia concurred in judgment. He disagreed with the Court’s assumption that the right the doctor allegedly violated “under color of law” was the Eighth Amendment. Scalia thought it would be the 14th Amendment, if anything, that the doctor violated. Frankly, I’m not sure the doctor violated either one. I can certainly accept this ruling that prison doctors are state actors. I’m less certain that insufficient medical care violates any Constitutional right.

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