The Politics of Inmate Litigation

Margo Schlanger, University of Michigan Law School


I feel compelled to respond to a recent student-written Note that critiques my Article, Inmate Litigation, published last year in the Review. The Note aims to expose my work as an (“at least . . . unconscious”) exercise in left-leaning political argumentation in the guise of technocratic, quantitative data-crunching. The accusation of covert politics is puzzling. My piece employed careful quantitative and qualitative empirical techniques to evaluate a statute, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), that restricts the legal rights of some of the most disempowered and vulnerable people in this country. The politics of that inquiry are clear, and I made no attempt to hide them: I think that the outcome of such systematic investigation matters — that it is wrong to curtail litigation rights, even of inmates, if the effect is to deny redress to victims of unconstitutional misconduct or if the policy change is based on false factual arguments. Unlike the Note, that is, I would hold Congress accountable for both the premises on which it rested inmate litigation reform and the results of that reform. The anonymous Note author’s (shocked, shocked!) discovery that my piece was driven by such an agenda, hidden in plain sight, hardly requires much analytic insight.