Rufo, Sheriff of Suffolk County, et al. v. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail
Decided on Jan. 15, 1992; 502 US 367


A. Issues Discussed: Criminal Justice (prison)

B. Legal Question Presented:

Did the Court of Appeals apply the correct standard in denying the Sheriff’s motion to modify the consent decree?


A. Background:

Following a lawsuit brought by Suffolk County Jail inmates (respondents) against the Suffolk County sheriff, Massachusetts' Commissioner of Corrections, the mayor of Boston, and nine city councilors (petitioners), the District Court held that conditions at the Suffolk County jail were unconstitutional. County officials and inmates entered into a consent decree providing for construction of a new jail that, among other things, would provide single occupancy cells for pretrial detainees.

Construction on the jail was delayed and the inmate population increased. During this delay petitioner filed a motion to modify the consent decree to allow double bunking, increasing the capacity of the new jail. The District Court denied the motion and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The US Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Max D. Stern argued the cause for respondents in both cases. With him on the brief were Lynn Weissberg and Alan B. Morrison.
Chester A. Janiak argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were Thomas D. Burns, Peter J. Schneider, Ann E. Merryfield, and Robert C. Rufo, pro se. John T. Montgomery, First Assistant Attorney General of Massachusetts, also argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Scott Harshbarger, Attorney General, and Jon Laramore, Thomas A. Barnico, and Douglas H. Wilkins, Assistant Attorneys General.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by John A. Powell, Steven R. Shapiro, John Reinstein, Elizabeth Alexander, Alexa P. Freeman, and Alvin J. Bronstein; for the Center for Dispute Settlement by C. Lani Guinier; for the Inmates of the Lorton Central Facility by Peter J. Nickles, Bruce N. Kuhlik, and Alan A. Pemberton; for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of the Boston Bar Association by John C. Englander; and for Allen F. Breed et al. by Sheldon Krantz. Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the State of New York by Attorney General Robert Abrams, Solicitor General O. Peter Sherwood, Deputy Solicitor General Lawrence S. Kahn, and Assistant Attorney General Barbara B. Butler; for the State of Tennessee et al. by Charles W. Burson, Attorney General of Tennessee; Michael W. Catalano, Deputy Attorney General; Charles Cole, Attorney General of Alaska; Grant Woods, Attorney General of Arizona; Winston Bryant, Attorney General of Arkansas; Dan Lungren, Attorney General of California; Gale Norton, Attorney General of Colorado; Charles M. Oberly III, Attorney General of Delaware; Robert A. Butterworth, Attorney General of Florida; Michael J. Bowers, Attorney General of Georgia; Elizabeth Barrett-Anderson, Attorney General of Guam; Warren Price III, Attorney General of Hawaii; Larry EchoHawk, Attorney General of Idaho; Roland W. Burris, Attorney General of Illinois; Linley E. Pearson, Attorney General of Indiana; Bonnie Campbell, Attorney General of Iowa; Robert T. Stephan, Attorney General of Kansas; Fred Cowan, Attorney General of Kentucky; William J. Guste, Jr., Attorney General of Louisiana; Michael E. Carpenter, Attorney General of Maine; J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General of Maryland; Frank J. Kelley, Attorney General of Michigan; Hubert H. Humphrey III, Attorney General of Minnesota; Mike Moore, Attorney General of Mississippi; William L. Webster, Attorney General of Missouri; Frankie Sue Del Papa, Attorney General of Nevada; John P. Arnold, Attorney General of New Hampshire; Robert J. Del Tufo, Attorney General of New Jersey; Tom Udall, Attorney General of New Mexico; Lacy H. Thornburg, Attorney General of North Carolina; Nicholas Spaeth, Attorney General of North Dakota; Lee Fisher, Attorney General of Ohio; Robert H. Henry, Attorney General of Oklahoma; Dave Frohnmayer, Attorney General of Oregon; Ernest D. Preate, Jr., Attorney General of Pennsylvania; Hector Rivera-Cruz, Attorney General of Puerto Rico; James E. O’Neil, Attorney General of Rhode Island; T. Travis Medlock, Attorney General of South Carolina; Mark “Barney” Barnett, Attorney General of South Dakota; Paul Van Dam, Attorney General of Utah; Jeffrey L. Amestoy, Attorney General of Vermont; Rosalie Ballentine, Acting Attorney General of the Virgin Islands; Mary Sue Terry, Attorney General of Virginia; Ken Eikenberry, Attorney General of Washington; Mario Palumbo, Attorney General of West Virginia; and Joseph B. Meyer, Attorney General of Wyoming; for the City of New York by Victor A. Kovner, Leonard J. Koerner, Fay Leoussis, and Timothy J. O’Shaughnessy; for the International City Management Association et al. by Richard Ruda, Zachary D. Fasman, and Mark L. Gerchick; and for Michael J. Ashe, Jr., Sheriff of Hampden County, et al. by Edward J. McDonough, Jr., Solicitor General Starr, Assistant Attorney General Gerson, Deputy Solicitor General Shapiro, Harriet S. Shapiro, Robert E. Kopp, and Thomas M. Bondy filed a brief for the United States as amicus curiae.


"The 'grievous wrong' language of Swift was not intended to take on a talismanic quality, warding off virtually all efforts to modify consent decrees. There is thus little basis for concluding that Rule 60(b) misread the Swift opinion and intended that modifications of consent decrees in all cases were to be governed by the standard actually applied in Swift. That Rule, in providing that, on such terms as are just, a party may be relieved from a final judgment or decree where it is no longer equitable that the judgment have prospective application, permits a less stringent, more flexible standard.

Although we hold that a district court should exercise flexibility in considering requests for modification of an institutional reform consent decree, it does not follow that a modification will be warranted in all circumstances... [A] party seeking modification of a consent decree bears the burden of establishing that a significant change in circumstances warrants revision of the decree.

A party seeking modification of a consent decree may meet its initial burden by showing a significant change either in factual conditions or in law.

Modification of a consent decree may be warranted when changed factual conditions make compliance with the decree substantially more onerous.

The District Court was... in error in holding that even under a more flexible standard than its version of Swift required, modification of the single cell requirement was necessarily forbidden... A consent decree must of course be modified if, as it later turns out, one or more of the obligations placed upon the parties has become impermissible under federal law...

[A] court should surely keep the public interest in mind in ruling on a request to modify based on a change in conditions making it substantially more onerous to abide by the decree. To refuse modification of a decree is to bind all future officers of the State, regardless of their view of the necessity of relief from one or more provisions of a decree that might not have been entered had the matter been litigated to its conclusion. The District Court seemed to be of the view that the problems of the fiscal officers of the State were only marginally relevant to the request for modification in this case... Financial constraints may not be used to justify the creation or perpetuation of constitutional violations, but they are a legitimate concern of government defendants in institutional reform litigation and therefore are appropriately considered in tailoring a consent decree modification.

To conclude, we hold that the Swift 'grievous wrong' standard does not apply to requests to modify consent decrees stemming from institutional reform litigation. Under the flexible standard we adopt today, a party seeking modification of a consent decree must establish that a significant change in facts or law warrants revision of the decree and that the proposed modification is suitably tailored to the changed circumstance. We vacate the decision below and remand the cases for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. It is so ordered."

Justice Vote: 2 Pro vs. 6 Con

  • White, B. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Thomas, C. Took no part in the consideration of the case

The ACLU filed a brief as amicus curiae urging affirmance; the US Supreme Court vacated and remanded the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in a 6-2 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.