(CN) – In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed a decision that would have forced New York prisoners to pursue claims for damages against correction officers in the U.S. Court of Claims instead of state courts.
Unlike in state courts, prisoners filing with the claims court are not entitled to attorney fees, punitive damages or injunctive relief.
Justice Stevens, who delivered the opinion, said the New York Court of Appeal’s ruling was “contrary to Congress’ judgment that all persons who violate federal rights while acting under color of state law shall be held liable for damages.” Stevens said the decision also flouted the Supremacy Clause, which mandates that federal statutes override any conflicting state laws.
Justices Kennedy, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer joined the majority opinion.
Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Alito.
Thomas argued that the Constitution was framed to let the states control the jurisdiction of their courts, and that the decision undoes the compromise between state and federal courts.
“The Supremacy Clause does not fossilize the jurisdiction of state courts in their original form. Under this Court’s precedent, States remain free to alter the structure of their judicial system even if that means certain federal causes of action will no longer be heard in state court,” he said. “Today’s decision thus represents a dramatic and unwarranted expansion of this Court’s precedent.”