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Supreme Court Ducks Issues in Kimberlin Case (The Dan Quayle Marijuana Case), Sends It Back to Court of Appeals


September 1995

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 12 that a lower court must revisit Brett Kimberlin's claim that in 1988, while he was a federal prisoner, he was unjustly put in solitary confinement to silence his story that he sold marijuana to Dan Quayle (Kimberlin v. Quinlan, No. 93-2068, June 12, 1995, 57 CrL 2148, 2157; for background of this case, see "Quayle Accuser's Lawsuit Gets New Life," NewsBriefs, February 1995).

Kimberlin was telling the news media in 1988 that he had sold marijuana to Dan Quayle when Quayle was a law student in the 1970s. In 1988, Quayle was a U.S. Senator from Indiana and the Republican candidate for Vice President. Prison officials set up a press conference to accommodate the large volume of news media requests for interviews with Kimberlin.

Upon hearing of the planned press conference, the deputy press secretary of the Bush-Quayle campaign made several telephone calls to the Department of Justice about Kimberlin's contacts with the news media. Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Quinlan subsequently cancelled the press conference, citing a department policy. Quinlan also placed Kimberlin in "administrative detention," ostensibly because there were threats on Kimberlin's life. Bureau of Prisons officials deny that calls from the Bush-Quayle campaign influenced their decision.

Kimberlin has sued Quinlan and others for violating his First Amendment rights. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia agreed to give Kimberlin a hearing on the merits of his claim. This was noteworthy because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has established a higher threshold for plaintiffs challenging the actions of government officials than other Circuits. Government officials are generally protected from being sued for their official actions under what is called "qualified immunity."

Under qualified immunity, plaintiffs must meet a "heightened pleading standard." In most lawsuits, plaintiffs must lay out a series of facts that substantiate a "cause of action," which the defendant can admit or deny. Typically, if a cause of action has been made out, then the parties proceed to "discovery" to find additional evidence.

Under the heightened pleading standard, plaintiffs must produce much more information to initiate discovery. For example, plaintiffs may have to produce documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), additional affidavits, video and tape recordings, news stories, and other material.

In the District of Columbia Circuit, plaintiffs must also offer "direct evidence" of the public official's intent to act improperly. Kimberlin would, for example, be required to show that public officials intended to silence him from talking about Dan Quayle. If they simply intended to protect him from harm, their detention of him would not be improper. Such evidence is difficult to obtain because people do not ordinarily express their unlawful intent openly.

Not only did the District Court find that Kimberlin offered sufficient evidence to meet the heightened pleading standard, but it held that the direct evidence standard was too high a burden for plaintiffs. Circumstantial evidence, the DistrictCourt ruled, should be sufficient to proceed even when public officials are defendants.

Quinlan and the other defendants immediately appealed this ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Despite a general rule against hearing appeals on an "interlocutory" basis (before a final ruling has been handed down), the Court of Appeals accepted the case and reversed the District Court's decision. Kimberlin appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court handed Kimberlin a partial victory. It vacated the decision of the Court of Appeals, but did not decide the legal questions Kimberlin's attorneys presented. It ordered the U.S. Court of Appeals to decide if they should have heard the appeal from the District Court before a final ruling in the case.

The Supreme Court ordered the Court of Appeals to consider the Supreme Court's decision in Johnson v. Jones (No. 94-455, 57 CrL 2152), which was also handed down on June 12. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that Courts of Appeals should not accept interlocutory appeals unless the appeal asks the court to decide if the case involves "clearly established" law. If the meaning of the law is in some dispute (e.g., various courts have interpreted the law in different ways), then officials retain their "qualified immunity" from being sued. If the case concerns a law that has accepted or "clearly established" meaning, then the suit can proceed.

The issue of direct evidence also may be of importance to how the Kimberlin case proceeds. The Supreme Court found in Johnson v. Jones that a case cannot be appealed on an interlocutory basis on the question of the sufficiency of the evidence. The District Court in the Kimberlin case found there was sufficient evidence to proceed, striking down the Court of Appeals direct evidence of intent standard. The Supreme Court was asked to rule on this standard in the Kimberlin case, but declined to do so.

Bureau of Prisons officials had conceded to the Court of Appeals that the District Court was correct in finding that the law in the Kimberlin case was "clearly established." As such, the Court of Appeals will probably send the case back to District Court to proceed with discovery. If the Court of Appeals decides the issue is not one of "clearly established" law, then the case may come before the Supreme Court again.