Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail/Opinion of the Court

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Rufo v. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail by Byron White
Opinion of the Court
Court Documents
Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Concurring Opinion
O'Connor
Dissenting Opinion
Stevens


In these cases, the District Court denied a motion of the Sheriff of Suffolk County, Massachusetts, to modify a consent decree entered to correct unconstitutional conditions at the Suffolk County Jail. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The issue before us is whether the courts below applied the correct standard in denying the motion. We hold that they did not and remand the case for further proceedings.

* This litigation began in 1971 when inmates sued the Suffolk County Sheriff, the Commissioner of Correction for the State of Massachusetts, the Mayor of Boston, and nine city councilors, claiming that inmates not yet convicted of the crimes charged against them were being held under unconstitutional conditions at what was then the Suffolk County Jail. The facility, known as the Charles Street Jail, had been constructed in 1848 with large tiers of barred cells. The numerous deficiencies of the jail, which had been treated with what a state court described as "malignant neglect," Attorney General v. Sheriff of Suffolk County, 394 Mass. 624, 625, 477 N.E.2d 361, 362 (1985), are documented in the decision of the District Court. See Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Eisenstadt, 360 F.Supp. 676, 679-684 (Mass.1973). The court held that conditions at the jail were constitutionally deficient:

"As a facility for the pretrial detention of presumptively innocent citizens, Charles Street Jail unnecessarily and unreasonably infringes upon their most basic liberties, among them the rights to reasonable freedom of motion, personal cleanliness, and personal privacy. The court finds and rules that the quality of incarceration at Charles Street is 'punishment' of such a nature and degree that it cannot be justified by the state's interest in holding defendants for trial; and therefore it violates the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment." Id., at 686. [1]

The Court permanently enjoined the government defendants: "(a) from housing at the Charles Street Jail after November 30, 1973 in a cell with another inmate, any inmate who is awaiting trial and (b) from housing at the Charles Street Jail after June 30, 1976 any inmate who is awaiting trial." Id., at 691. The defendants did not appeal. [2]

In 1977, with the problems of the Charles Street Jail still unresolved, the District Court ordered defendants, including the Boston City Council, to take such steps and expend the funds reasonably necessary to renovate another existing facility as a substitute detention center. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Kearney, Civ. Action No. 71-162-G (Mass., June 30, 1977), App. 22. The Court of Appeals agreed that immediate action was required:

"It is now just short of five years since the district court's opinion was issued. For all that time the plaintiff class has been confined under the conditions repugnant to the constitution. For all of that time defendants have been aware of that fact.

. . . . .

"Given the present state of the record and the unconscionable delay that plaintiffs have already endured in securing their constitutional rights, we have no alternative but to affirm the district court's order to prohibit the incarceration of pretrial detainees at the Charles St. Jail." Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Kearney, 573 F.2d 98, 99-100 (CA1 1978).

The Court of Appeals ordered that the Charles Street Jail be closed on October 2, 1978, unless a plan was presented to create a constitutionally adequate facility for pretrial detainees in Suffolk County.

Four days before the deadline, the plan that formed the basis for the consent decree now before this Court was submitted to the District Court. Although plans for the new jail were not complete, the District Court observed that "the critical features of confinement, such as single cells of 80 sq. ft. for inmates, are fixed and safety, security, medical, recreational, kitchen, laundry, educational, religious and visiting provisions, are included. There are unequivocal commitments to conditions of confinement which will meet constitutional standards." Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Kearney, Civ. Action No. 71-162-G (Mass., Oct. 2, 1978), App. 51, 55. The Court therefore allowed Suffolk County to continue housing its pretrial detainees at the Charles Street Jail.

Seven months later, the Court entered a formal consent decree in which the government defendants expressed their "desire . . . to provide, maintain and operate as applicable a suitable and constitutional jail for Suffolk County pretrial detainees." Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Kearney, Civ. Action No. 71-162-G (Mass., May 7, 1979), App. to Pet. for Cert. 15a. The decree specifically incorporated the provisions of the Suffolk County Detention Center, Charles Street Facility, Architectural Program, which-in the words of the consent decree "sets forth a program which is both constitutionally adequate and constitutionally required." Id., at 16a.

Under the terms of the Architectural Program, the new jail was designed to include a total of 309 "[s]ingle occupancy rooms" of 70 square feet, App. 73, 76, [3] arranged in modular units that included a kitchenette and recreation area, inmate laundry room, education units, and indoor and outdoor exercise areas. See, e.g., id., at 249. The size of the jail was based on a projected decline in inmate population, from 245 male prisoners in 1979 to 226 at present. Id., at 69.

Although the Architectural Program projected that construction of the new jail would be completed by 1983, ibid., work on the new facility had not been started by 1984. During the intervening years, the inmate population outpaced population projections. Litigation in the state courts ensued, and defendants were ordered to build a larger jail. Attorney General v. Sheriff of Suffolk County, 394 Mass. 624, 477 N.E.2d 361 (1985). Thereupon, plaintiff prisoners, with the support of the sheriff, moved the District Court to modify the decree to provide a facility with 435 cells. Citing "the unanticipated increase in jail population and the delay in completing the jail," the District Court modified the decree to permit the capacity of the new jail to be increased in any amount, provided that:

"(a) single-cell occupancy is maintained under the design for the facility;

"(b) under the standards and specifications of the Architectural Program, as modified, the relative proportion of cell space to support services will remain the same as it was in the Architectural Program;

"(c) any modifications are incorporated into new architectural plans;

"(d) defendants act without delay and take all steps reasonably necessary to carry out the provisions of the Consent Decree according to the authorized schedule." Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Kearney, Civ. Action No. 71-162-G (Mass., April 11, 1985), App. 110, 111.

The number of cells was later increased to 453. Construction started in 1987.

In July 1989, while the new jail was still under construction, the sheriff moved to modify the consent decree to allow the double bunking of male detainees in 197 cells, thereby raising the capacity of the new jail to 610 male detainees. The sheriff argued that changes in law and in fact required the modification. The asserted change in law was this Court's 1979 decision in Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 99 S.Ct. 1861, 60 L.Ed.2d 447 (1979), handed down one week after the consent decree was approved by the District Court. The asserted change in fact was the increase in the population of pretrial detainees.

The District Court refused to grant the requested modification, holding that the sheriff had failed to meet the standard of United States v. Swift & Co., 286 U.S. 106, 119, 52 S.Ct. 460, 464, 76 L.Ed. 999 (1932): "Nothing less than a clear showing of grievous wrong evoked by new and unforeseen conditions should lead us to change what was decreed after years of litigation with the consent of all concerned."

The court rejected the argument that Bell required modification of the decree because the decision "did not directly overrule any legal interpretation on which the 1979 consent decree was based, and in these circumstances it is inappropriate to invoke Rule 60(b)(5) to modify a consent decree." Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Kearney, 734 F.Supp. 561, 564 (Mass.1990). The court refused to order modification because of the increased pretrial detainee population, finding that the problem was "neither new nor unforeseen." Ibid.

The District Court briefly stated that, even under the flexible modification standard adopted by other Courts of Appeals, [4] the sheriff would not be entitled to relief because "[a] separate cell for each detainee has always been an important element of the relief sought in this litigation-perhaps even the most important element." Id., at 565. Finally, the court rejected the argument that the decree should be modified because the proposal complied with constitutional standards, reasoning that such a rule "would undermine and discourage settlement efforts in institutional cases." Ibid. The District Court never decided whether the sheriff's proposal for double celling at the new jail would be constitutionally permissible.

The new Suffolk County Jail opened shortly thereafter.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, stating "[w]e are in agreement with the well-reasoned opinion of the district court and see no reason to elaborate further." Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Kearney, 915 F.2d 1557 (CA1, 1990), judgt. order reported at 915 F.2d 1557, App. to Pet. for Cert. 2a. [5] We granted certiorari. 498 U.S. ----, 111 S.Ct. 950, 112 L.Ed.2d 1039 (1991).

In moving for modification of the decree, the sheriff relied on Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), which in relevant part provides:

"On motion and upon such terms as are just, the court may relieve a party or a party's legal representative from a final judgment, order, or proceeding for the following reasons: . . . (5) the judgment has been satisfied, released, or discharged, or a prior judgment upon which it is based has been reversed or otherwise vacated, or it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective application; or (6) any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment. . . ."

There is no suggestion in these cases that a consent decree is not subject to Rule 60(b). A consent decree no doubt embodies an agreement of the parties and thus in some respects is contractual in nature. But it is an agreement that the parties desire and expect will be reflected in and be enforceable as a judicial decree that is subject to the rules generally applicable to other judgments and decrees. Railway Employes v. Wright, 364 U.S. 642, 650-651, 81 S.Ct. 368, 372-373, 5 L.Ed.2d 349 (1961). The District Court recognized as much but held that Rule 60(b)(5) codified the "grievous wrong" standard of United States v. Swift & Co., supra, that a case for modification under this standard had not been made, and that resort to Rule 60(b)(6) was also unavailing. This construction of Rule 60(b) was error.

Swift was the product of a prolonged antitrust battle between the Government and the meat-packing industry. In 1920, the defendants agreed to a consent decree that enjoined them from manipulating the meat-packing industry and banned them from engaging in the manufacture, sale, or transportation of other foodstuffs. 286 U.S., at 111, 52 S.Ct., at 461. In 1930, several meat-packers petitioned for modification of the decree, arguing that conditions in the meat-packing and grocery industries had changed. Id., at 113, 52 S.Ct., at 461. The Court rejected their claim, finding that the meat-packers were positioned to manipulate transportation costs and fix grocery prices in 1930, just as they had been in 1920. Id., at 115-116, 52 S.Ct., at 462-463. It was in this context that Justice Cardozo, for the Court, set forth the much-quoted Swift standard, requiring "[n]othing less than a clear showing of grievous wrong evoked by new and unforeseen conditions" as a predicate to modification of the meat-packers' consent decree. Id., at 119, 52 S.Ct., at 464.

Read out of context, this language suggests a "hardening" of the traditional flexible standard for modification of consent decrees. New York State Assn. for Retarded Children, Inc. v. Carey, 706 F.2d 956, 968 (CA2), cert. denied, 464 U.S. 915, 104 S.Ct. 277, 78 L.Ed.2d 257 (1983). But that conclusion does not follow when the standard is read in context. See United States v. United Shoe Machinery Corp., 391 U.S. 244, 248, 88 S.Ct. 1496, 1499, 20 L.Ed.2d 562 (1968). The Swift opinion pointedly distinguished the facts of that case from one in which genuine changes required modification of a consent decree, stating that:

"The distinction is between restraints that give protection to rights fully accrued upon facts so nearly permanent as to be substantially impervious to change, and those that involve the supervision of changing conduct or conditions and are thus provisional and tentative. . . . The consent is to be read as directed toward events as they then were. It was not an abandonment of the right to exact revision in the future, if revision should become necessary in adaptation to events to be." 286 U.S., at 114-115, 52 S.Ct., at 462.

Our decisions since Swift reinforce the conclusion that the "grievous wrong" language of Swift was not intended to take on a talismanic quality, warding off virtually all efforts to modify consent decrees. Railway Employes emphasized the need for flexibility in administering consent decrees, stating: "There is . . . no dispute but that a sound judicial discretion may call for the modification of the terms of an injunctive decree if the circumstances, whether of law or fact, obtaining at the time of its issuance have changed, or new ones have since arisen." 364 U.S., at 647-648, 81 S.Ct., at 371-372.

The same theme was repeated in our decision last term in Board of Education of Oklahoma City Public Schools v. Dowell, 498 U.S. ----, ----, 111 S.Ct. 630, ----, 112 L.Ed.2d 715 (1991), in which we rejected the rigid use of the Swift "grievous wrong" language as a barrier to a motion to dissolve a desegregation decree.

There is thus little basis for concluding that Rule 60(b) misread the Swift opinion and intended that modifications of consent decrees in all cases were to be governed by the standard actually applied in Swift. That Rule, in providing that, on such terms as are just, a party may be relieved from a final judgement or decree where it is no longer equitable that the judgment have prospective application, permits a less stringent, more flexible standard.

The upsurge in institutional reform litigation since Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S.Ct. 686, 98 L.Ed. 873 (1954), has made the ability of a district court to modify a decree in response to changed circumstances all the more important. Because such decrees often remain in place for extended periods of time, the likelihood of significant changes occurring during the life of the decree is increased. See, e.g., Philadelphia Welfare Rights Organization v. Shapp, 602 F.2d 1114, 1119-1121 (CA3 1979), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 1026, 100 S.Ct. 689, 62 L.Ed.2d 660 (1980), in which modification of a consent decree was allowed in light of changes in circumstances that were beyond the defendants' control and were not contemplated by the court or the parties when the decree was entered.

The experience of the district and circuit courts in implementing and modifying such decrees has demonstrated that a flexible approach is often essential to achieving the goals of reform litigation. See, e.g., New York State Assn. for Retarded Children, Inc. v. Carey, supra. [6] The Courts of Appeals have also observed that the public interest is a particularly significant reason for applying a flexible modification standard in institutional reform litigation because such decrees "reach beyond the parties involved directly in the suit and impact on the public's right to the sound and efficient operation of its institutions." Heath v. De Courcy, 888 F.2d 1105, 1109 (CA6 1989). Accord, New York State Assn. for Retarded Children, Inc. v. Carey, supra, at 969.

The government petitioners urge that these factors are present in the cases before us and support modification of the decree. They assert that modification would actually improve conditions for some pretrial detainees, who now cannot be housed in the Suffolk County Jail and therefore are transferred to other facilities, farther from family members and legal counsel. In these transfer facilities, the petitioners assert that detainees may be double celled under less desirable conditions than those that would exist if double celling were allowed at the new Suffolk County Jail. The government petitioners also contend that the public interest is implicated here because crowding at the new facility has necessitated the release of some pretrial detainees and the transfer of others to halfway houses, from which many escape.

For the District Court, these points were insufficient reason to modify under Rule 60(b)(5) because its "authority [was] limited by the established legal requirements for modification. . . ." 734 F.Supp., at 566. The District Court, as noted above, also held that the suggested modification would not be proper even under the more flexible standard that is followed in some other Circuits. None of the changed circumstances warranted modification because it would violate one of the primary purposes of the decree which was to provide for "[a] separate cell for each detainee [which] has always been an important element of the relief sought in this litigation-perhaps even the most important element." Id., at 565. For reasons appearing later in this opinion, this was not an adequate basis for denying the requested modification. The District Court also held that Rule 60(b)(6) provided no more basis for relief. The District Court, and the Court of Appeals as well, failed to recognize that such rigidity is neither required by Swift nor appropriate in the context of institutional reform litigation.

It is urged that any rule other than the Swift "grievous wrong" standard would deter parties to litigation such as this from negotiating settlements and hence destroy the utility of consent decrees. Obviously that would not be the case insofar as the state or local government officials are concerned. As for the plaintiffs in such cases, they know that if they litigate to conclusion and win, the resulting judgment or decree will give them what is constitutionally adequate at that time but perhaps less than they hoped for. They also know that the prospective effect of such a judgment or decree will be open to modification where deemed equitable under Rule 60(b). Whether or not they bargain for more than what they might get after trial, they will be in no worse position if they settle and have the consent decree entered. At least they will avoid further litigation and perhaps will negotiate a decree providing more than what would have been ordered without the local government's consent. And, of course, if they litigate, they may lose.

Although we hold that a district court should exercise flexibility in considering requests for modification of an institutional reform consent decree, it does not follow that a modification will be warranted in all circumstances. Rule 60(b)(5) provides that a party may obtain relief from a court order when "it is no longer equitable that the judgment should have prospective application," not when it is no longer convenient to live with the terms of a consent decree. Accordingly, a party seeking modification of a consent decree bears the burden of establishing that a significant change in circumstances warrants revision of the decree. If the moving party meets this standard, the court should consider whether the proposed modification is suitably tailored to the changed circumstance. [7]

A party seeking modification of a consent decree may meet its initial burden by showing either a significant change in factual conditions or in law.

* Modification of a consent decree may be warranted when changed factual conditions make compliance with the decree substantially more onerous. Such a modification was approved by the District Court in this litigation in 1985 when it became apparent that plans for the new jail did not provide sufficient cell space. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Kearney, Civ. Action No. 71-162-G (Mass., Apr. 11, 1985), App. 110. [8] Modification is also appropriate when a decree proves to be unworkable because of unforeseen obstacles, New York State Assn. for Retarded Children, Inc. v. Carey, 706 F.2d, at 969 (modification allowed where State could not find appropriate housing facilities for transfer patients); Philadelphia Welfare Rights Organization v. Shapp, 602 F.2d, at 1120-1121 (modification allowed where State could not find sufficient clients to meet decree targets); or when enforcement of the decree without modification would be detrimental to the public interest, Duran v. Elrod, 760 F.2d 756, 759-761 (CA7 1985) (modification allowed to avoid pretrial release of accused violent felons).

Respondents urge that modification should be allowed only when a change in facts is both "unforeseen and unforeseeable." Brief for Respondents at 35. Such a standard would provide even less flexibility than the exacting Swift test; we decline to adopt it. Litigants are not required to anticipate every exigency that could conceivably arise during the life of a consent decree.

Ordinarily, however, modification should not be granted where a party relies upon events that actually were anticipated at the time it entered into a decree. See Twelve John Does v. District of Columbia, 274 U.S.App.D.C. 62, 65-66, 861 F.2d 295, 298-299 (1988); Ruiz v. Lynaugh, 811 F.2d 856, 862-863 (CA5 1987). If it is clear that a party anticipated changing conditions that would make performance of the decree more onerous but nevertheless agreed to the decree, that party would have to satisfy a heavy burden to convince a court that it agreed to the decree in good faith, made a reasonable effort to comply with the decree, and should be relieved of the undertaking under Rule 60(b).

Accordingly, on remand the District Court should consider whether the upsurge in the Suffolk County inmate population was foreseen by the petitioners. The District Court touched on this issue in April, 1990, when, in the course of denying the modification requested in this litigation, the court stated that "the overcrowding problem faced by the Sheriff is neither new nor unforeseen. It has been an ongoing problem during the course of this litigation, before and after entry of the consent decree." 734 F.Supp., at 564. However, the Architectural Program incorporated in the decree in 1979 specifically set forth projections that the jail population would decrease in subsequent years. [9] Significantly, when the District Court modified the consent decree in 1985, the Court found that the "modifications are necessary to meet the unanticipated increase in jail population and the delay in completing the jail." Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Kearney, Civ. Action No. 71-162-G (Mass., Apr. 11, 1985), App. 110 (emphasis added). Petitioners assert that it was only in July, 1988, 10 months after construction began, that the number of pretrial detainees exceeded 400 and began to approach the number of cells in the new jail. Brief for Petitioner in No. 90-954, p. 9.

It strikes us as somewhat strange, if a rapidly increasing jail population had been contemplated, that respondents would have settled for a new jail that would not have been adequate to house pretrial detainees. [10] There is no doubt that the original and modified decree called for a facility with single cells. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Kearney, Civ. Action No. 71-162-G (Mass., Apr. 11, 1985), App. 110. [11] It is apparent, however, that the decree itself nowhere expressly orders or reflects an agreement by petitioners to provide jail facilities having single cells sufficient to accommodate all future pretrial detainees, however large the number of such detainees might be. Petitioners' agreement and the decree appear to have bound them only to provide the specified number of single cells. If petitioners were to build a second new facility providing double cells that would meet constitutional standards, it is doubtful that they would have violated the consent decree.

Even if the decree is construed as an undertaking by petitioners to provide single cells for pretrial detainees, to relieve petitioners from that promise based on changed conditions does not necessarily violate the basic purpose of the decree. That purpose was to provide a remedy for what had been found, based on a variety of factors, including double celling, to be unconstitutional conditions obtaining in the Charles Street Jail. If modification of one term of a consent decree defeats the purpose of the decree, obviously modification would be all but impossible. That cannot be the rule. The District Court was thus in error in holding that even under a more flexible standard than its version of Swift required, modification of the single cell requirement was necessarily forbidden.

A consent decree must of course be modified if, as it later turns out, one or more of the obligations placed upon the parties has become impermissible under federal law. But modification of a consent decree may be warranted when the statutory or decisional law has changed to make legal what the decree was designed to prevent.

This was the case in Railway Employes v. Wright, 364 U.S. 642, 81 S.Ct. 368, 5 L.Ed.2d 349 (1961). A railroad and its unions were sued for violating the Railway Labor Act, 45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq., which banned discrimination against nonunion employees, and the parties entered a consent decree that prohibited such discrimination. Later, the Railway Labor Act was amended to allow union shops, and the union sought a modification of the decree. Although the amendment did not require but purposely permitted union shops, this Court held that the union was entitled to the modification because the parties had recognized correctly that what the consent decree prohibited was illegal under the Railway Act as it then read and because a "court must be free to continue to further the objectives of th[e] Act when its provisions are amended." Railway Employes, supra, at 650, 651, 81 S.Ct., at 372, 373. See also Firefighters v. Stotts, 467 U.S. 561, 576, and n. 9, 583, n. 17, 104 S.Ct. 2576, 2586, and n. 9, 2590, n. 17, 81 L.Ed.2d 483 (1984).

Petitioner Rapone urges that, without more, our 1979 decision in Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 99 S.Ct. 1861, 60 L.Ed.2d 447 (1979), was a change in law requiring modification of the decree governing construction of the Suffolk County Jail. We disagree. Bell made clear what the Court had not before announced: that double celling is not in all cases unconstitutional. But it surely did not cast doubt on the legality of single celling, and petitioners were undoubtedly aware that Bell was pending when they signed the decree. Thus, the case must be judged on the basis that it was immaterial to petitioners that double celling might be ruled constitutional, i.e., they preferred even in that event to agree to a decree which called for providing only single cells in the jail to be built.

Neither Bell nor the Federal Constitution forbade this course of conduct. Federal courts may not order States or local governments, over their objection, to undertake a course of conduct not tailored to curing a constitutional violation that has been adjudicated. See Milliken v. Bradley (Milliken II), 433 U.S. 267, 281, 97 S.Ct. 2749, 2757, 53 L.Ed.2d 745 (1977). But we have no doubt that, to "save themselves the time, expense, and inevitable risk of litigation," United States v. Armour & Co., 402 U.S. 673, 681, 91 S.Ct. 1752, 1757, 29 L.Ed.2d 256 (1971), petitioners could settle the dispute over the proper remedy for the constitutional violations that had been found by undertaking to do more than the Constitution itself requires (almost any affirmative decree beyond a directive to obey the Constitution necessarily does that), but also more than what a court would have ordered absent the settlement. Accordingly, the District Court did not abuse its discretion in entering the agreed-upon decree, which clearly was related to the conditions found to offend the Constitution. Milliken v. Bradley (Milliken I), 418 U.S. 717, 738, 94 S.Ct. 3112, 3124, 41 L.Ed.2d 1069 (1974). See also Dowell, 498 U.S., at ----, 111 S.Ct., at ----. Cf. Firefighters v. Cleveland, 478 U.S. 501, 525, 106 S.Ct. 3063, 3076, 92 L.Ed.2d 405 (1986). [12]

To hold that a clarification in the law automatically opens the door for relitigation of the merits of every affected consent decree would undermine the finality of such agreements and could serve as a disincentive to negotiation of settlements in institutional reform litigation. The position urged by petitioners "would necessarily imply that the only legally enforceable obligation assumed by the state under the consent decree was that of ultimately achieving minimal constitutional prison standards. . . . Substantively, this would do violence to the obvious intention of the parties that the decretal obligations assumed by the state were not confined to meeting minimal constitutional requirements. Procedurally, it would make necessary, as this case illustrates, a constitutional decision every time an effort was made either to enforce or modify the decree by judicial action." Plyler v. Evatt, 924 F.2d 1321, 1327 (CA4 1991).

While a decision that clarifies the law will not, in and of itself, provide a basis for modifying a decree, it could constitute a change in circumstances that would support modification if the parties had based their agreement on a misunderstanding of the governing law. For instance, in Pasadena City Board of Education v. Spangler, 427 U.S. 424, 437-438, 96 S.Ct. 2697, 2705-2706, 49 L.Ed.2d 599 (1976), we held that a modification should have been ordered when the parties had interpreted an ambiguous equitable decree in a manner contrary to the District Court's ultimate interpretation and the District Court's interpretation was contrary to intervening decisional law. And in Nelson v. Collins, 659 F.2d 420, 428-429 (CA4 1981) (en banc), the Fourth Circuit vacated an equitable order that was based on the assumption that double bunking of prisoners was per se unconstitutional.

Thus, if the Sheriff and Commissioner could establish on remand that the parties to the consent decree believed that single celling of pretrial detainees was mandated by the Constitution, this misunderstanding of the law could form a basis for modification. In this connection, we note again, see supra, at 375, that the decree itself recited that it "sets forth a program which is both constitutionally adequate and constitutionally required." (Emphasis added).

Once a moving party has met its burden of establishing either a change in fact or in law warranting modification of a consent decree, the District Court should determine whether the proposed modification is suitably tailored to the changed circumstance. In evaluating a proposed modification, three matters should be clear.

Of course, a modification must not create or perpetuate a constitutional violation. Petitioners contend that double celling inmates at the Suffolk County Jail would be constitutional under Bell. Respondents counter that Bell is factually distinguishable and that double celling at the new jail would violate the constitutional rights of pretrial detainees. [13] If this is the case-the District Court did not decide this issue, 734 F.Supp., at 565-566-modification should not be granted.

A proposed modification should not strive to rewrite a consent decree so that it conforms to the constitutional floor. Once a court has determined that changed circumstances warrant a modification in a consent decree, the focus should be on whether the proposed modification is tailored to resolve the problems created by the change in circumstances. A court should do no more, for a consent decree is a final judgment that may be reopened only to the extent that equity requires. The court should not "turn aside to inquire whether some of [the provisions of the decree] upon separate as distinguished from joint action could have been opposed with success if the defendants had offered opposition." Swift, 286 U.S., at 116-117, 52 S.Ct., at 463.

Within these constraints, the public interest and "[c]onsiderations based on the allocation of powers within our federal system," Dowell, 498 U.S., at ----, 111 S.Ct., at 632, require that the district court defer to local government administrators, who have the "primary responsibility for elucidating, assessing, and solving" the problems of institutional reform, to resolve the intricacies of implementing a decree modification. Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294, at 299, 75 S.Ct. 753 at 755-756, 99 L.Ed. 1083 (1955). See also Missouri v. Jenkins, 495 U.S. 33, ----, 110 S.Ct. 1651, ----, 109 L.Ed.2d 31 (1990); Milliken II, 433 U.S., at 281, 97 S.Ct., at 2757. [14] Although state and local officers in charge of institutional litigation may agree to do more than that which is minimally required by the Constitution to settle a case and avoid further litigation, a court should surely keep the public interest in mind in ruling on a request to modify based on a change in conditions making it substantially more onerous to abide by the decree. To refuse modification of a decree is to bind all future officers of the State, regardless of their view of the necessity of relief from one or more provisions of a decree that might not have been entered had the matter been litigated to its conclusion. The District Court seemed to be of the view that the problems of the fiscal officers of the State were only marginally relevant to the request for modification in this case. 734 F.Supp., at 566. Financial constraints may not be used to justify the creation or perpetuation of constitutional violations, but they are a legitimate concern of government defendants in institutional reform litigation and therefore are appropriately considered in tailoring a consent decree modification.

To conclude, we hold that the Swift "grievous wrong" standard does not apply to requests to modify consent decrees stemming from institutional reform litigation. Under the flexible standard we adopt today, a party seeking modification of a consent decree must establish that a significant change in facts or law warrants revision of the decree and that the proposed modification is suitably tailored to the changed circumstance. We vacate the decision below and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Justice THOMAS took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Notes[edit]

^1  The Court was of the view that cases dealing with pretrial detention are more appropriately analyzed under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment than under the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment, but thought that conditions at the Charles Street Jail were also vulnerable under the Eighth Amendment. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Eisenstadt, 360 F.Supp., at 688.

^2  However, within five months, Suffolk County officials advised the court that they could not comply with the November 30 deadline for ending double celling at the Charles Street Jail. The District Court ordered the commissioner to transfer inmates to other institutions, and the commissioner appealed, claiming that the court lacked the power to order him to make the transfers. The First Circuit affirmed the order of the District Court, finding that the commissioner had "major statutory responsibilities" over county jails and that he had failed to appeal the District Court's decision holding that he was a proper party to the lawsuit. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Eisenstadt, 494 F.2d 1196, cert. denied, 419 U.S. 977, 95 S.Ct. 239, 42 L.Ed.2d 189 (1974).

^3  The size of the cells was reduced from the September plan. The Architectural Program noted that:

"The single occupancy rooms have been sized to meet the minimum standards as devised by the following standard setting agencies. The Massachusetts Department of Correction's Code of Human Services Regulations, Chapter IX-Standards for County Correctional Facilities, Standard 972.3 calls for a minimum of 70 square feet for all new cell design. The Manual of Standards for Adult Local Detention Facilities, Standard 5103, as sponsored by the American Correctional Association requires at least 70 sq. ft. of floor space when confinement exceeds 10 hours per day." App. 77-78.

See also id., at 63-66 (listing state and national standards consulted in preparation of the Architectural Program).

^4  See, e.g., New York State Assn. for Retarded Children, Inc. v. Carey, 706 F.2d 956 (CA2) (Friendly, J.), cert. denied, 464 U.S. 915, 104 S.Ct. 277, 78 L.Ed.2d 257 (1983); Philadelphia Welfare Rights Organization v. Shapp, 602 F.2d 1114 (CA3 1979), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 1026, 100 S.Ct. 689, 62 L.Ed.2d 660 (1980); Plyler v. Evatt, 846 F.2d 208 (CA4), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 897, 109 S.Ct. 241, 102 L.Ed.2d 230 (1988); Heath v. De Courcy, 888 F.2d 1105 (CA6 1989); Newman v. Graddick, 740 F.2d 1513 (CA11 1984).

^5  Because of the overcrowding at the new Suffolk County Jail, the sheriff refused to transfer female prisoners to the new facility. He did not request modification of the decree. The District Court subsequently ordered the sheriff to house female inmates at the new jail. The Sheriff appealed, and the First Circuit affirmed. Inmates of Suffolk County Jail v. Kearney, 928 F.2d 33 (CA1 1991). That decision is not before this Court.

^6  In Carey, the state defendants sought modification of a consent decree designed to empty a state school for the mentally retarded that had housed over 6,000 people in squalid conditions. The consent judgment contemplated transfer of residents to community placements of 15 or fewer beds. 706 F.2d, at 959. Defendants urged that revising the decree to allow placement of some residents in larger community residences would both expedite their transfer from the state school and allow for a higher quality of care. Judge Friendly, writing for the Second Circuit, allowed the modification:

"Here, as in Swift, the modification is proposed by the defendants. But it is not, as in Swift, in derogation of the primary objective of the decree, namely, to empty such a mammoth institution . . .; indeed defendants offered substantial evidence that, again in contrast to Swift, the modification was essential to attaining that goal at any reasonably early date. To be sure, the change does run counter to another objective of the decree, namely, to place the occupants . . . in small facilities bearing some resemblance to a normal home, but any modification will perforce alter some aspect of the decree." Id., at 969.

In so ruling, the Court recognized that "[t]he power of a court of equity to modify a decree of injunctive relief is long-established, broad, and flexible." Id., at 967.

^7  The standard we set forth applies when a party seeks modification of a term of a consent decree that arguably relates to the vindication of a constitutional right. Such a showing is not necessary to implement minor changes in extraneous details that may have been included in a decree (e.g., paint color or design of a building's facade) but are unrelated to remedying the underlying constitutional violation. Ordinarily, the parties should consent to modifying a decree to allow such changes. If a party refuses to consent and the moving party has a reasonable basis for its request, the court should modify the decree. In this case the entire architectural plan became part of the decree binding on the local authorities. Hence, any change in the plan technically required a change in the decree, absent a provision in the plan exempting certain changes. Such a provision was furnished by the 1985 modification of the decree. Of course, the necessity of changing a decree to allow insignificant changes could be avoided by not entering an overly detailed decree.

^8  This modification was entered over the opposition of the Boston city councilors, who were parties to the litigation in the District Court.

^9  The Architectural Program included the following projections:

Year Populatin Priojections

1979 254

1980 243

1981 241

1982 239

1983 238

1984 236

1985-1989 232

1990-1994 226

1995-1999 216

App. 69.

^10  Respondents and the District Court have been provided with daily prison population data during this litigation. See Transcript of Hearing on Motion to Modify Consent Decree 82 (Mar. 30, 1990). The fact that none of the parties showed alarm over fluctuations in this data undermines the dissent's argument that the ongoing population increase was "reasonably foreseeable." See post, at 406.

We note that the dissent's "reasonably foreseeable" standard differs significantly from that adopted by the Court today. By invoking this standard and focusing exclusively on developments following modification of the decree in 1985, see post, at 405, the dissent jumps to the conclusion that petitioners assumed full responsibility for responding to any increase in detainee numbers by increasing the capacity of the jail, potentially infinitely. But we do not think that, in the absence of a clear agreement and a fully developed record, this Court should impose that burden on a local government by assuming that a change in circumstances was "reasonably foreseeable" and that anticipating and responding to such a change was the sole responsibility of the petitioners.

^11  One of the conditions of the modification ordered in 1985 was that "single-cell occupancy is maintained under the design for the facility." App., at 111.

^12  Petitioner Rapone contends that the District Court was required to modify the consent decree because "the constitutional violation underlying the decree has disappeared and will not recur" and that "no constitutional violation [is] even alleged" at the new jail, "so there is no constitutional violation to serve as a predicate for the federal court's continued exercise of its equitable power." Brief for Petitioner in No. 90-1004, pp. 31, 36-37. His argument is not well taken. The District Court did not make findings on these issues, and even if it had ruled that double celling at the new jail is constitutional and that the modification should be granted, we do not have before us the question whether the entire decree should be vacated.

^13  In the District Court, respondents introduced the report of an architectural consultant who claimed that the proposed modification would violate the standards of the American Correctional Association and the Massachusetts Division of Capital Planning and Operations by leaving detainees with inadequate cell, dayroom, and outdoor exercise space. See App. 146-179. See Bell, 441 U.S., at 544, n. 27, 99 S.Ct., at 1876, n. 27 ("while the recommendations of these various groups may be instructive in certain cases, they simply do not establish the constitutional minima").

^14  The concurrence mischaracterizes the nature of the deference that we would accord local government administrators. As we have stated, see supra, at 383, the moving party bears the burden of establishing that a significant change in circumstances warrants modification of a consent decree. No deference is involved in this threshold inquiry. However, once a court has determined that a modification is warranted, we think that principles of federalism and simple common sense require the court to give significant weight to the views of the local government officials who must implement any modification.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).