Board of Pardons v. Allen
482 U.S. 369 (1987)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Board of Pardons v. Allen, 482 U.S. 369 (1987)

Board of Pardons v. Allen

No. 86-461

Argued April 1, 1987

Decided June 9, 1987

482 U.S. 369

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

In Greenholtz v. Nebraska Penal Inmates,442 U. S. 1, the Court held that the mandatory language and structure of a Nebraska parole-release statute created an "expectancy of release," a liberty interest entitled to protection under the Due Process Clause. The Montana statute at issue in this case provides that a prisoner eligible for parole "shall" be released when there is a reasonable probability that no detriment will result to him or the community, and specifies that parole shall be ordered for the best interests of society, and when the State Board of Pardons (Board) believes that the prisoner is able and willing to assume the obligations of a law-abiding citizen. After being denied parole, respondent prisoners filed a civil rights action against petitioners, the Board and its Chair, alleging that the Board denied them due process by failing to apply the statutorily mandated criteria in determining parole eligibility, and failing adequately to explain its reasons for parole denials. Although acknowledging that the case was controlled by principles established in Greenholtz, the District Court ruled that respondents were not entitled to due process protections in connection with their parole denials, concluding that, because the Board is required to make determinations with respect to the best interests of the community and the prisoner, its discretion is too broad to provide a prisoner with a liberty interest in parole release. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, finding the Montana statute virtually indistinguishable in structure and language from the statute considered in Greenholtz.

Held: When scrutinized under the Greenholtz standards, the Montana statute clearly creates a liberty interest in parole release that is protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although, as in Greenholtz, the release decision here is "necessarily . . . subjective and predictive" and the Board's discretion "very broad," nevertheless, the Montana statute, like the Nebraska statute, uses mandatory language ("shall") to create a presumption that parole release will be granted when the designated findings are made. This presumption exists whether, as in Greenholtz, the statute mandates release "unless" the required findings are made, or whether, as here, release is necessary "when" or "if" the findings are made or is mandated "subject to" them. Moreover, the "substantive predicates" of release in Montana are similar

Page 482 U. S. 370

to those in Nebraska, since each statute requires consideration of the impact of release on both the prisoner and the community, of the prisoner's ability to lead a law-abiding life, and of whether release will cause a "detriment to . . . the community," and each statute vests the State's parole board with equivalent discretion. That the Montana statute places significant limits on the Board's discretion is further demonstrated by its replacement of an earlier statute which allowed absolute discretion, its specifying as its purpose the creation of restrictions on that discretion, and its addition of a provision authorizing judicial review of parole-release decisions. Pp. 482 U. S. 373-381. 792 F.2d 1404, affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and SCALIA, J., joined, post p. 482 U. S. 381.

JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether respondents have a liberty interest in parole release that is protected under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

I

Respondents are George Allen and Dale Jacobsen, inmates of the Montana State Prison. [Footnote 1] In 1984, after their applications

Page 482 U. S. 371

for parole were denied, they filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on behalf of a class of an present and future inmates of the Montana State Prison who were or might become eligible for parole. Seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as compensatory damages, the complaint charged the State Board of Pardons (Board) and its Chair with violations of the inmates' civil rights. Specifically, respondents alleged that the Board does not apply the statutorily mandated criteria in determining inmates' eligibility for parole, Complaint

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