U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago Weighs In on Hemorrhoids

The heavyweights on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago turn their attention to a delicate matter indeed: an inmate’s hemorrhoids. James Warren reports.

08.13.12 9:00 PM ET

After weighing in on President Obama’s health-care legislation, campaign finance, immigration, and religious liberty, the federal judiciary has finally gotten around to hemorrhoids.

Indeed, it’s fallen to the chief judge of the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit to opine on “golf-ball-size hemorrhoids” apparently afflicting a prison inmate and thus to slap down a lower-court colleague for being distinctly insensitive to the inmate’s apparent painful plight.

The chief judge is Frank Easterbrook, who is from the same law and economics school at the University of Chicago as Richard Posner, his higher-profile colleague who may be the most influential judge outside the Supreme Court. They’re both powerful intellects of a conservative stripe picked by President Ronald Reagan. Both remain on the University of Chicago Law School faculty.

Easterbrook’s opining on vascular structures in the anal canal is a result of a September 2011 lawsuit filed by Anthony Wheeler, an Illinois prison inmate. He alleged that both prison officials and Wexford Health Services, which provides medical services to the prison, refused decent care for his hemorrhoids and supposedly left him in excruciating pain.

“Documents submitted with the complaint show that Wheeler is not fantasizing,” writes Easterbrook for a unanimous three-judge panel that includes David Hamilton, one of President Obama’s most recent picks for an appeals bench, and Diane Wood, selected by President Clinton and reported to have been twice on short lists for Supreme Court vacancies filled by Obama.

Judge Easterbrook quickly chides Judge Michael J. Reagan, who sits on a federal trial bench in East St. Louis, Illinois, by citing a statute compelling judges to screen prisoners’ complaints before or “as soon as practicable after” they are docketed. But despite the claim that the inmate’s pain was ignored, “the district judge to this day has not screened the complaint” under that relevant statute, Easterbrook wrote. “Defendants have not been served; the litigation is stalled.”

The inmate had to file three motions for relief before Reagan went into action and spurned him, claiming that the inmate failed to show any facts showing “the likelihood Plaintiff will suffer immediate and irreparable harm before the Defendants can be heard,” according to Reagan’s brief order.

Easterbrook proceeded to trash each of Reagan’s three grounds for denying inmate Wheeler, including the trial judge’s apparent belief that pain never constitutes “irreparable injury,” according to Easterbrook.

“Just as prisoner administrators must deal promptly with their charges’ serious medical problems, so federal judges must not leave litigants to bear pain indefinitely,” writes Easterbrook. For sure “a prisoner’s view of optimal medical treatment can be a weak ground for superseding the views of competent physicians, but prisoners are not invariably wrong. Judges regularly must decide whether physicians have ignored a serious medical problem.”

Despite the fact that the inmate “did himself no favors” by naming 36 defendants in his complaint, that complaint should have been dealt with and screened before the end of last September, Easterbrook concludes. “The district court must complete that task swiftly.”

“On the day our mandate is received, the judge must authorize service of process on all defendants involved in the treatment of Wheeler’s hemorrhoids.”