The Court’s decision in Turner v. Safely is a benchmark example of the Court’s ability to establish a framework for analyzing constitutional issues in a community with which it is not familiar with, willingness to engage with the community and apply the framework, and take a disciplined approach to its role as the court of last resort in its Congressionally-created jurisdiction.
It can be easy to take for granted the Court’s disciplined, structured approach to its job as a court of last resort, which I will take up in a later post. The decision in Safelybegan with a procedural history, and then turned to the reason for granting review. Though not specifically articulated in this particular decision, it is clear the reason fell within one of the established criteria for good cause listed in the Court’s procedural rules. Before turning to the Court’s analysis of the question presented, it summarized the lower courts’ treatment of the existing case law and their attempts harmonize it to answer the question presented. This demonstrated a professional respect for the judicial temperament, judgment, and analysis of the lower courts. In fact, the Court’s treatment of the issue built upon the lower courts’ attempts to harmonize the case law.
After reviewing the lower court treatment to set the stage for the question before the Court, it subsequently announced the rule and deference standard. It is notable that this deference was not categorical. The Court established a framework to govern how courts should engage with the inmate community, to include how to handle the appropriate deference. Then, it actually engaged with the community. The Court was not afraid to “play with” its framework and test how the rule works, even with the appropriate deference to officials on the ground.
One final observation is necessary. In considering deference to officials “on the ground,” keep in mind the Court is acknowledging that decisions in the inmate community are made, for lack of better phrasing, “in the field” and “during the heat of battle.” These are not decisions made removed from this environment, played out in a courtroom with established rules and procedures. These are decisions implemented in the day-to-day operations of a community in which safety and security—of both inmates and corrections officers—are paramount.
This distinction will become more pronounced as we move to the military community, after first taking a look at the Court’s similar approach to the student community.
The Court’s Engagement with the Inmate Community