St. Mary's Law Journal


In Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail, the Court held that courts may modify consent decrees resulting from institutional reform litigation upon showing a significant change in law or fact and a modification appropriately tailored to that change. The case of Swift v. United States set a strict standard for modification of consent decrees, requiring movants to demonstrate extreme, unexpected hardship and oppression. However, there is a modem trend toward adopting a more flexible standard. The Court deems the “flexible test” as particularly appropriate in the case of the institutional reform consent decree because of its speculative, long-term nature.  In Rufo, the Court adopted a flexible consent decree modification test that was too overly indulgent to governmental institutions. The Court, too, frequently grants undue deference to the government and its powerful institutions. Apparently, it is easier for the Court to rule against the “little guy” than defy the government's strong arm. Granting deference to governmental institutions renders them virtually autonomous. This autonomy has all too often allowed institutions to abuse their discretion, which is exactly why Rufo’s original inmate-petitioners lived in deplorable conditions and forced to sue, to have their rights acknowledged.  Rufo illustrates that frequently it is frequently the government causing the harm. As a last resort, these victims look to the judicial system for assistance, only to discover that the courts defer to the government and its institutions, which are the evil source. Consequently, these trapped victims are in a vicious cycle from which there appears no escape. Unless the Supreme Court and the entire judicial system abandon the deferential standard, this cycle is inevitable.


St. Mary's University School of Law