The first is an increasing indifference to textualism -- being perfectly happy to manipulate or flatly ignore statutory or constitutional language in order to achieve desired results. Yesterday's Clean Water Act ruling, where the Court held 5-4 that "adjacent" doesn't mean "adjacent" because, well, they don't want it to, is a prominent example. The "major questions" doctrine is another, including the invalidation of OSHA's COVID vaccine-or-test mandate despite the fact that it fell cleanly into the clear statutory language, is another. The Court's recent voting rights jurisprudence, featuring Shelby County's entirely-invented "equal sovereignty of the states" rule, is another. The Court's recent Second Amendment jurisprudence, which has functionally decided the first half of the Second Amendment's text may as well not exist, is a yet another.
The second, by contrast, is a sort of hyper-literal textualism that zooms in so tightly on individual words that it ends up blitzing past how people actually read texts. The opinion striking down mask mandates on planes is one example here; some of the opinions striking down the eviction moratorium fit as well. Though styled as "textualism", this sort of analysis really is a dangerous confluence of putative textualists being bad at reading texts.
Slotting into the latter category is a concurring opinion by 11th Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom in Wade v. McDade, arguing that the Eighth Amendment does not forbid any level of "negligent" treatment of prisoners by prison staff -- not negligence, not gross negligence, not even criminal recklessness. Judge Newsom's argument is deceptively simple: the Eighth Amendment forbids cruel and unusual punishments. But a punishment, he says, can by definition only be imposed intentionally. There's no such thing as a non-intentional punishment. And negligence, in all of its species, is something less than intentional. Hence:
The undeniable linguistic fact that the term “punishment” entails an intentionality element would seem to preclude any legal standard that imposes Eighth Amendment liability for unintentional conduct, no matter how negligent—whether it be only “mere[ly]” so or even “gross[ly]” so.... So on a plain reading, the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause applies only to penalties that are imposed intentionally and purposefully.
At one level, I appreciate Judge Newsom for saying the quiet part out loud here, because normally I'd spend time pointing out that Judge Newsom's position would warrant even the most grotesque acts of wanton disregard for the lives and wellbeing of prisoners. But Judge Newsom is quite happy to endorse (further) converting our prison system into a miniature gulag archipelago, so I guess I can skip that part and move to the textual question: is Judge Newsom's interpretation an "undeniable" inference from the term "punishment"?
And the answer, I think, is clearly "no".
At the outset of his opinion, Judge Newsom analogizes the negligent treatment of prisoners to that of parents and children: "Just as a parent can’t accidently punish his or her child, a prison official can’t accidentally—or even recklessly—'punish' an inmate." But in law, "accidental" and "intentional" are not an exhaustive binary. The whole purpose of the negligence and recklessness categories is to account for cases that lie between the pure accident and the specifically envisioned and desired consequence. And that makes sense, because while law contains different levels of "intent", legal fact patterns nearly always blend several of them together.
Take a case where a speeding driver strikes a pedestrian with his car. Did the driver act "intentionally"? On one level, he was likely intentionally speeding (his foot wasn't literally glued to the gas pedal). On another level, he likely did not intend to hit the pedestrian (he did not seek to mow him down). Negligence captures the interstitial position where the driver intentionally acted in a fashion which foreseeably placed the pedestrian in danger (even if converting the danger into reality was not the driver's motivation). In this, negligence is very different from the pure accident not because it lacks intention, but precisely because of its intentionality.
Swap back to punishment. Imagine a more pre-modern society where we outsource punishment to private actors. I catch you stealing tools from my garage. As a consequence, I strip you of your clothes, take all the possessions you have on you (to make sure you have nothing you could attack me with), and drop you off in the middle of the woods without food or water which I can't be bothered to acquire for you, safely away from my house. You tell me "my pills are in my bag; if I don't take them each evening I might die!" I say "I don't care if you live or die. Oh, and watch out for the forest-dwellers -- they aren't always friendly." You do, in fact, have a seizure overnight and die. Are the actions I took "punishing" you?
Plainly, it seems the answer is yes. And this is so even if I genuinely was apathetic to whether you lived or died. Like the driver striking the pedestrian, my conduct is a mix of the purely intentional (I took your possessions, I dropped you off in the woods) and negligent/reckless (I do not care whether you have a stroke, I do not care if the forest-dwellers attack you). Being intentionally placed in a position where one's custodians do not care whether you live or die is obviously a punishment. Indeed, the fact that it's a "punishment" is the only thing that distinguishes it from pure sadism, abuse, or kidnapping. The fact that the seizure was not specifically intended doesn't change the fact that what happened to you in no way could be described as an "accident". It was the result of intentional actions, and the reason I acted in the way that I did -- with reckless disregard for your life or safety -- was very much tied to my desire to punish you.
In most prison litigation cases, there is similar "intent". The failure to, e.g., give a prisoner necessary medication isn't a wholly-accidental whoopsie-doodle (and if it is, then there isn't even negligence). It is an intentional choice. Indeed, a large part of what prison is, and what makes it such a terrifying prospect, is that it is a place the state sends you where the people who have control of your life do not and perhaps need not care if you live or die. Everything about that is intentional. Or put another way, the pervasive, heartless lack of intention is the intention -- being placed in such a situation is entirely the product of intentional choices at every step of the process.
There's a lot to dislike about the "deliberate indifference" standard which has taken over prison abuse litigation, but one thing it gets right is that indifference is absolutely a choice, not an accident. To fail to treat a person in your custody with requisite care is a choice, and it doesn't stop being a choice just because its foreseeable consequences were not expressly desired.
So what makes Judge Newsom go astray here? He seems to think we should chop up "punishment" into each potential negative experience one might have in prison. Being locked up, and being restricted from the yard, and being deprived of medication, and being placed in solitary, and being put into a cellblock with white supremacists liable to stab you -- each of these are separate (potential) "punishments" whose status as a "punishment" must be assessed atomistically. But this approach defies common sense. When someone is sentenced to prison for a crime, we don't think of it as a loose cluster of twenty or so discrete "punishments". It's one punishment. The punishment is being a prisoner and being subjected to the prison experience. Everything that happens in prison is part of the overall context of being punished. There is no need to parcel out individual moments and ask "but is this particular action a separate punishment", any more than we need to ask whether swinging bats in the on-deck circle or jogging out into the outfield is part of "playing a baseball game." It's all part of the game, and the hyper-zoomed-in focus on each discrete moment misses the forest for the trees.
In other words, while it may be true that something must be a "punishment" to fall under the auspices of the Eighth Amendment, all prisoners by definition are being punished. They pass that threshold categorically; none of them have been placed in jail by accident. At that point, the relevant question is whether the set of challenged actions or behaviors or what have you suffices to make that punishment into a "cruel and unusual" one. And certainly, being put in an Arkham City terrordome should qualify even (especially!) if the overseers assiduously do not care if you live or die. Perpetual, ongoing, systematic negligence (to say nothing of recklessness) towards persons who are helpless and in your care is one of the cruelest acts imaginable. Where that is part of the punishment, the punishment is cruel and unusual.
Judge Newsom concludes his opinion with the following:
Maybe it makes sense to hold prison officials liable for negligently or recklessly denying inmates appropriate medical care. Maybe not. But any such liability, should we choose to recognize it, must find a home somewhere other than the Eighth Amendment. We—by which I mean the courts generally—have been ignoring that provision’s text long enough. Whether we like it or not, the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause applies, as its moniker suggests, only to “punishments.” And whether we like it or not, “punishment” occurs only when a government official acts intentionally and with a specific purpose to discipline or deter.
This "whether we like or not" language is reminiscent of my Sadomasochistic Judging article. Judge Newsom seems to recognize the cruelty inherent in his position. But he leverages that cruelty into an argument for textual fidelity; the avoidance of cruelty is the hint that his colleagues have been led astray from the strictures of law. As I've demonstrated above, this isn't true; the text does not demand the cruelty Judge Newsom ascribes to it. But the pleasure of the pain of causing pain is too tempting to pass up. It's not good textualism that's motivating Judge Newsom. It's the ecstasy of bad textualism leading to bad results, whose badness is paradoxically metabolized as the purest and most faithful instantiation of textual loyalty.