Kerr v. United States District Court,
426 U.S. 394 (1976)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Kerr v. United States District Court, 426 U.S. 394 (1976)

Kerr v. United States District Court

No. 74-1023

Argued November 11, 1975

Decided June 14, 1976

426 U.S. 394


In a class action by California state prisoners on behalf of themselves and all present or future adult male felons in California state prisons or on parole, plaintiffs alleged constitutional violations in the manner in which the members of the California Adult Authority and other petitioners determine the length of detention and conditions of punishment for convicted offenders, and sought declaratory and injunctive relief. In the course of discovery pursuant to Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 34 plaintiffs sought (1) Adult Authority files consisting, inter alia, of personnel files of all members and employees of the Adult Authority; and (2) prisoners' files, consisting of the files of every twentieth inmate in each state correctional institution. Petitioners, claiming that the Adult Authority files were irrelevant, confidential, and privileged, suggested that they should not be compelled to turn over the files without prior District Court in camera inspection. That court ordered the production of the documents without such review, but limited the number of people associated with the plaintiffs who might examine the documents. Petitioners then filed a petition for mandamus to vacate the discovery order, which the Court of Appeals denied. Though recognizing a qualified governmental "official or state secrecy privilege," the court indicated that, contrary to the situation here, assertion of such a privilege had to be made with specificity by high-level Adult Authority officials. A somewhat similar course ensued with regard to the prisoners' files, ending with the Court of Appeals' denial of mandamus without opinion.

Held: In the circumstances of this case -- and particularly since less extreme alternatives for modification of the challenged discovery orders were available -- issuance of the writ of mandamus is inappropriate. Pp. 426 U. S. 402-406.

(a) As a means of implementing the rule that mandamus will issue only in extraordinary circumstances, the party seeking this largely discretionary writ must show that there are no other adequate means to secure the desired relief. Pp. 426 U. S. 402-403.

Page 426 U. S. 395

(b) Here, adequate alternatives to mandamus existed. The Court of Appeals' opinion did not foreclose in camera review, but apparently left open the opportunity for petitioners through responsible officials to assert the privilege more specifically, and have their request for in camera review reconsidered. They thus have an avenue far short of mandamus to achieve the relief they seek, and this approach affords an appropriate and useful method for achieving a balance between petitioners' claims of irrelevance and privilege and plaintiffs' asserted need for the documents. Pp. 426 U. S. 404-406.

(c) There is no reason to believe that, by its order relating to the discovery of the prisoners' files, the Court of Appeals meant to foreclose petitioners from availing themselves of the same opportunity of securing in camera review as is available in the case of the Adult Authority files . P. 426 U. S. 406.

511 F.2d 192, and order of Dec. 18, 1974 (unreported), affirmed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all Members joined except STEVENS, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Primary Holding

A writ of mandamus is an extraordinary remedy and is appropriate only when the party seeking it has no alternative means of reaching the same result and has shown that the right to the writ is clear and indisputable.


A class was formed of all male adults who were convicted of felonies and held in the custody of the California Department of Corrections in the present or in the future. The plaintiffs and their attorneys were allowed to inspect the files of a sample of prisoners currently in CDC custody, as well as information in the personnel files of Adult Authority members and their employees. The court denied a request for in camera inspection before releasing these files to the plaintiffs. One of the defendants in the ensuing class action was Kerr. He sought writs of mandamus to compel the trial court to vacate these discovery orders, but the Ninth Circuit denied them.



  • Thurgood Marshall (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Potter Stewart
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist

The overuse of writs of mandamus would raise serious concerns over fragmenting related litigation, creating a process of appeal by writ, and undermining the Congressional intent to limit this remedy to use after all other avenues have been exhausted. In almost all situations, an appellate court should not review a case until the trial court has made a final decision. The defendant in this case still has a viable alternative to seeking the writ because he could assert governmental privilege. This would lead the trial court to reconsider its rejection of the request for an in camera review, and the court never acted to prevent the defendant from making that argument.


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)

Case Commentary

Actions for a writ of mandamus often require the court of appeals to essentially review the merits of the claim, even though this is not technically the appropriate forum to do so.

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