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The 2005-2006 U.S. Supreme Court Decisions on Access to the Federal Courts

The First Term of the John Roberts Era

By Gary F. Smith, Jane Perkins, Gill Deford & Matthew Diller

In this past term, the “new” Supreme Court, with Chief Justice John Roberts at its helm and recently appointed Justice Samuel Alito, generally revealed little about its approach to federal court access issues. One exception was the interpretation of the exhaustion requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995. The Court required “proper” exhaustion, including compliance with administrative timelines and procedures and thus narrowed federal court access for incarcerated persons. The Court also restrictively interpreted certain provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The Court held that parents, not the school district, bore the burden of persuasion at due process hearings on individualized education programs. In another case, the Court held that the IDEA’s fee-shifting provision did not authorize recovery of expert witness fees as part of costs. And the Court’s rejection of government’s claims of sovereign immunity in three major decisions was not viewed as marking a new direction for the Roberts Court; these holdings were based on narrow issues.

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