United States v. Sanchez-Gomez

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided United States v. Sanchez-Gomez.


Can an appellate court hear an interlocutory appeal regarding a lower court’s pretrial defendant-shackling policy, and can an appellate court rule on the appeal despite the mootness of the appeal’s underlying claims?

Oral argument: 
March 26, 2018

This case will have important repercussions for two seemingly disconnected areas of the law: the methods available for defendants to challenge courtroom procedures and the delineation of the jurisdictional boundaries of courts of appeals. The issue in this case is whether the Ninth Circuit had constitutional and statutory authority to hear an interlocutory appeal challenging a policy that all defendants appearing in pretrial proceedings must wear physical restraints. On the one hand, the United States argues that the Ninth Circuit lacked statutory authority because the appeal fell into neither the collateral-order exception nor the ambit of the All Writs Act, and lacked constitutional authority because the claims were moot. On the other hand, Sanchez-Gomez et al. contend that the Ninth Circuit had statutory authority under either the collateral-order exception or the All Writs Act, and had constitutional authority because their claims fell into the “capable of repetition, yet evading review” exception to mootness. The case will either open or close a novel avenue for criminal litigants to challenge courtroom policies.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

Whether the court of appeals erred in asserting authority to review respondents’ interlocutory challenge to pretrial physical restraints and in ruling on that challenge notwithstanding its recognition that respondents’ individual claims were moot?


In 2013, Respondents Rene Sanchez-Gomez, Moises Patricio-Guzman, Jasmin Isabel Morales, and Mark Ring all appeared in “full restraints” in pretrial proceedings in the Southern District of California. “Full restraints” refers to a type of restraint that closely handcuffs a defendant’s hands, connects those handcuffs to a chain wrapped around a defendant’s waist, and shackles a defendant’s feet.

These full restraints were the result of a recommendation from the United States Marshal for the Southern District of California to the judges of the Southern District of California. The Marshal recommended this policy because of a higher number of criminal defendants compared to other districts, an increase in violence among pretrial detainees, and an increase in the areas that require Marshal-provided services, such as new courthouses. Under the policy, Marshals could generally decide which pretrial defendant would be taken to a non-jury, pretrial proceeding in full restraints, although the judges kept the authority to order the Marshals to remove the restraints. Additionally, the individual judges could choose whether to participate in the policy at all, though only one judge forewent complete participation. While fully restrained criminal defendants could ask a judge to partly or wholly remove their restraints, several requests were denied. Although defense advocates routinely objected to the use of full restraints, judges usually relied on the Marshals Service’s general security concerns, without making a determination about the specific circumstances of the defendant.

Sanchez-Gomez et al. objected to this policy in each of their proceedings and asked the magistrate judges hearing their cases to remove the restraints. In each instance, the magistrate judges overruled their objections, and Sanchez-Gomez et al. subsequently appealed the denials to the district court and filed motions challenging the district-wide policy, arguing that the policy violated their constitutional right to be free from bodily restraint. The district court, however, denied all relief, concluding that the policy was reasonably related to legitimate government interests and did not violate the prisoners’ constitutional rights. Sanchez-Gomez et al. then appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where a panel vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded the matter for further proceedings, explaining that, although it has previously approved a similar pretrial restraint procedure, the Southern District, in this instance, failed to provide adequate justification for its policy.

The Ninth Circuit, after its panel’s decision, reheard the case en banc. The Ninth Circuit first considered if it had the power to hear the case, and it found that the kind of relief Sanchez-Gomez et al. sought was a kind of relief that could apply to every in-custody defendant within the Southern District of California. Thus, it determined that it could treat their claim as a petition for a writ of mandamus, or, in other words, a petition by Sanchez-Gomez et al. asking the Ninth Circuit to order the lower courts to properly follow the law. Next, the Ninth Circuit determined that the case was not moot, even though Sanchez-Gomez et al. were not currently in-custody defendants, because the events were events that could repeat themselves with other in-custody defendants. Finally, it concluded that the policy was unconstitutional but denied issuing a writ of mandamus. It explained that the government needed a specific reason that justified restraining a specific defendant and that it could not rely on general security reasons to restrain all in-custody defendants, but that a writ of mandamus was not necessary because the policy was not presently in effect. Additionally, the Ninth Circuit noted that the requirement to have a specific reason to justify restraining applied in a pretrial proceeding and at trial, regardless of whether a jury was present. Petitioner United States appealed the Ninth Circuit’s decision per 28 U.S.C. § 1254(1).



The United States first asserts the axiomatic rule that federal courts obtain their authority to hear specific types of cases only through grants of power given by the Constitution and by statutes. Turning first to statutory authority, the United States contends that the Ninth Circuit did not have statutory authority to hear this case under the general appellate-jurisdiction statute, 28 U.S.C. 1291. The United States argues that the general appellate-jurisdiction statute is inapplicable because the order to shackle defendants does not satisfy the final-judgment rule indicating that, generally, parties may only appeal final decisions. Noting that the general presumption against interlocutory appeals is particularly strong in the criminal context, the United States contends that none of the instant appeals arose from a final decision and are therefore statutorily invalid. The United States next defines the collateral-order exception—an exception to the final-judgment rule that applies where orders are conclusive, decide an issue apart from the merits of the case, and essentially cannot be reviewed on direct, post-judgment appeal—and argues that the exception is inapplicable here. The United States posits that the Supreme Court has held an interlocutory, criminal appeal to be valid in only four instances—none of which are analogous to this case. Not only would a post-judgment appeal be effective, the United States argues, but a post-judgment appeal would actually be more effective than an interlocutory appeal because a more-developed record would show whether the shackling practice was unfair. Moreover, the United States contends, the collateral-order exception is inapplicable because another alternative exists: a civil suit.

the order must conclusively determine the disputed question, resolve an important issue completely separate from the merits of the action, and be effectively unreviewable on appeal from a final judgment.”

Sanchez-Gomez et al. concede that the Ninth Circuit did not decide the case under its traditional appellate jurisdiction, but argue that their claims fall squarely within the collateral-order exception. Sanchez-Gomez et al.’s definition of the collateral-order exception is similar to the United States’: the order must be conclusive, the claim must be important without regard to the merits of the case, and denial of an interlocutory appeal must be an effective denial of appeal outright. Sanchez-Gomez et al. differ from the United States in their view of the doctrine’s application; Sanchez-Gomez et al. argue that their claims fall within the collateral-order exception because the most important prong of the test—the effective denial of appeal—is self-evident. Essentially, Sanchez-Gomez et al. contend, a plaintiff who is shackled at a pretrial hearing loses liberty; under the United States’ application of the collateral-order exception, if such a plaintiff were to win his criminal case on the merits, he would have no legal recourse to vindicate the affront to his liberty. Sanchez-Gomez et al. bolster this argument by drawing analogs to Supreme Court cases that allowed interlocutory appeals of excessive bail requirements and forcible medication for trial. Next, Sanchez-Gomez et al. assert that the rights in question—a liberty right girded by the presumption of innocence, the right to mount a legal defense, and the interest in courtroom decorum—are important enough to merit a collateral order. Finally, Sanchez-Gomez et al. argue that Supreme Court precedent dictates that their claims be brought as collateral orders, and not as a civil class action, because remedies available within the criminal proceeding must be exhausted.


The United States argues that the Ninth Circuit incorrectly invoked statutory authority over the instant claims under the All Writs Act. The United States delineates three limits on writs of mandamus stemming from Supreme Court precedent: a writ of mandamus must be a party’s only viable path to relief, a party’s right to a writ must be “clear and indisputable,” and a party must show that a writ is appropriate because of an effective “usurpation of judicial power or a clear abuse of discretion.” Assessing the first limit, the United States contends that there were two other viable paths to relief for these plaintiffs: either a final-judgment appeal or a civil suit. Turning to the second limit, the United States argues that the right to the writ is not clear and indisputable because precedent in California’s federal courts does not dictate that the shackling policy is indubitably invalid. Finally, with regard to the third limit, the United States posits that the district court’s decision in this case, even if erroneous, did not amount to “willful disobedience” or “abuse of judicial power.” Thus, the United States argues, this case does not satisfy the three conditions for writs of mandamus.

On the other hand, Sanchez-Gomez et al. argue that the Ninth Circuit correctly invoked its statutory authority over the claims under the All Writs Act—authority they define as the power to settle undecided questions regarding “the scope of a district court’s power.” Sanchez-Gomez et al. define the first two requirements for proper issuance of a writ similarly to the United States, but define the third requirement as “the writ is appropriate under the circumstances.” Sanchez-Gomez et al. assert that all three requirements are met. First, the writ is the only possible path to relief, argue Sanchez-Gomez et al., because the harm to them and to similarly situated plaintiffs is to their liberty, without regard to their conviction status, and no cases hold that unrelated civil suits may constitute an alternative means. Second, Sanchez-Gomez et al. assert that their right to a writ is clear and indisputable because, as supported by similar issuances, the right pertains to whether a district court acted outside the scope its discretion allows. Third, Sanchez-Gomez et al. contend that the writ is appropriate—or, as the United States frames the requirement, that the shackling policy amounts to a clear abuse of discretion—because the inquiry is focused not on whether the district court acted within a previously delineated scope of discretion but rather on what the boundaries of that scope are in the first instance.


The United States argues that the Ninth Circuit did not have the constitutional authority to hear this case because the issues became moot once the underlying criminal cases concluded. The United States notes that because the mootness requirement survives only throughout the life of any litigation and requires a personal stake in the outcome, the Ninth Circuit should have dismissed the appeals as moot when all four of the criminal cases that formed the basis of the claims ended prior to the issuance of an opinion. Next, the United States contends that the Ninth Circuit erred when it held that the cases were not moot because they were “functional class actions.” The United States concedes that a certified class action lawsuit would have survived mootness and recognizes the “relation back” doctrine—a line of cases that holds that certain types of claims that challenge broad policies, consist of transitory claims, and involve common representation can overcome mootness and earn class certification despite concluded proceedings. The United States, however, argues that this case does not involve a certified class action and the “relation back” doctrine is inapplicable because the plaintiffs neither sought class certification nor sought relief beyond their individual rights. Finally, the United States agrees with the Ninth Circuit’s decision that the claims do not fall into the mootness “capable of repetition while evading review” exception—an exception based on the idea that certain claims must be justiciable regardless of mootness because of their transitory nature—because in the context of class actions claims must be transitory and likely to be personally repeated for the claimant. The United States argues that these claims fail the requirement of personal repeatability because the plaintiffs cannot rely on likely recidivism to prove they are likely to be shackled again.

Sanchez-Gomez et al. contend that their claims are not moot because they fall into the “capable of repetition, yet evading review” exception to mootness. Sanchez-Gomez et al. agree with the United States that the test for this exception is whether the claims are transitory (short in temporal duration) and the complainant reasonably expects to be personally injured again. Sanchez-Gomez et al. disagree, however, with the United States’ assertion that the second part of the test is unmet. In fact, Sanchez-Gomez et al. state that two of their number have experienced the shackling policy again in subsequent, unrelated criminal proceedings since this litigation began. Moreover, Sanchez-Gomez et al. contend, their claims are reasonably expected to repeat because forty to fifty percent of the Southern District of California’s criminal caseload involves immigration offenses, and about thirty-eight percent of “illegal reentry offenders” have at least one similar conviction. In response to the United States’ claim that likely criminal recidivism cannot satisfy the personal repeatability prong, Sanchez-Gomez et al. argue that this is a presumption, not a rule. Finally, Sanchez-Gomez et al. tackle the “functional class action” issue by first stating that the argument is unnecessary because of the “capable of repetition, yet evading review” exception to mootness. Should the Court decline to apply that exception, however, Sanchez-Gomez et al. argue that the Court should forego the use of the term “functional class action” and instead look to the “personal stake” condition of Article III’s cases-or-controversies requirement and hold that the condition is implicitly met because the community defender assigned to the case will vigorously litigate Sanchez-Gomez et al.’s claim.



The California Sheriffs’ Association (“Sheriffs’ Association”) and Senator Jeff Flake et al. (“Flake et al.”), in support of the United States, argue that this blanket policy of physically restraining all detainees during pretrial proceedings is necessary for effective law enforcement. Without this policy, the Sheriffs’ Association contends, there would be no practical way to hire enough law enforcement officials to effectively monitor and secure courtrooms. Moreover, Flake et al. contend that, before the Ninth Circuit’s decision, choices regarding appropriate courtroom security were made by informed, experienced law enforcement officials, but, after the decision, these choices are made by courts. Flake et al. warn that accommodating courts’ decisions would result in decreased overall courtroom security because there are insufficient law enforcement resources to provide adequate courtroom security absent shackling procedures. 

The National Association of Federal Defenders (“Federal Defenders”), in support of Sanchez-Gomez et al., contends that full restraints are not necessary for effective law enforcement. In fact, the Federal Defenders argue, defendants in the Southern District of California had appeared for forty years without any pretrial restraints without major incident. They assert that these restraints cause unnecessary pain to pretrial defendants, especially because the substantial number of daily detainees means that law enforcement officials do not have enough time to pay due care to each detainee. Moreover, the Federal Defenders note that these restraints humiliate detainees, especially when they are restrained for extended periods of time.


The Sheriffs’ Association, in support of the United States, argues that the pretrial restraints at issue are critical to maintaining court decorum necessary for a dignified judicial proceeding. The Sheriffs’ Association asserts that courtroom decorum is achieved in part, by secure and safe proceedings. These safe proceedings are undermined, they maintain, when, for example, organized gangs coerce “non-violent” inmates to smuggle weapons into a courtroom or commit violent acts in the courtroom. In these cases, the Sheriffs’ Association contends, Sanchez-Gomez et al.’s preferred requirement that restraints be used only where there is an individualized justification for doing so would fail to identify such dangers. The Sheriffs’ Association argues that a blanket policy of pretrial restraints, based upon specific past experiences of the Marshals, best accounts for the various kinds of safety risks present when dealing with many defendants.

On the other hand, Former Judges et al., in support of Sanchez-Gomez et al., argue that the restraint policy used by the United States in the Southern District of California undermines courtroom decorum by infringing on the integrity of judicial proceedings. In fact, Former Judges et al. claim that when the public feels as though judicial proceedings are not fair or just, they lose confidence in the courts and the rule of law. In other contexts, judges have used individualized assessments to determine whether something undermined courtroom decorum, like, for example, when determining whether criminal defendants must wear stun belts during proceedings, or when determining whether to hold a defendant in contempt for wearing a t-shirt with a vulgar phrase. The blanket policy mandating physical restraints at issue here, Former Judges et al. contend, is inconsistent with the kind of individualized assessments that courts have undertaken in the past. In fact, these kinds of physical restraints make the defendant appear threatening or violent and, Former Judges et al. claim, undermine courtroom decorum because the public no longer thinks that courts treat everyone equally or respect the presumption of innocence.

Edited by 


Additional Resources