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decided: January 12, 1993.



Souter, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and White, O'connor, and Scalia, JJ., joined. Kennedy, J., filed a dissenting opinion. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Blackmun, Stevens, and Kennedy, JJ., joined.

Author: Souter

JUSTICE SOUTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

Title 28 U.S.C. § 1915, providing for appearances in forma pauperis, authorizes federal courts to favor any "person" meeting its criteria with a series of benefits including dispensation from the obligation to prepay fees, costs, or security for bringing, defending, or appealing a lawsuit. Here, we are asked to decide whether the term "person" as so used applies to the artificial entities listed in the definition of that term contained in 1 U.S.C. § 1. We hold that it does not, so that only a natural person may qualify for treatment in forma pauperis under § 1915.


Respondent California Men's Colony, Unit II Men's Advisory Council is a representative association of prison inmates organized at the behest of one of the petitioners, the Warden of the Colony, to advise him of complaints and recommendations from the inmates, and to communicate his administrative decisions back to them. The general prison population elects the Council's members.

In a complaint filed in the District Court in 1989, the Council charged the petitioners, state correctional officers, with violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments in discontinuing their practice of providing free tobacco to indigent inmates. The Council sought leave to proceed in forma pauperis under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a), claiming by affidavit of the Council's Chairman that the Warden forbad the Council to hold funds of its own. The District Court denied the motion for an inadequate showing of indigency, though it responded to the Council's motion for reconsideration with a suggestion of willingness to consider an amended application containing "details of each individual's indigency."

On appeal, the Council was allowed to proceed in forma pauperis to enable the court to reach the very question "whether an organization, such as [the Council], may proceed in forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a)," No. 90-55600 (CA9, July 20, 1990). The court requested that a lawyer represent the Council pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(d).*fn1

The Court of Appeals reversed, 939 F.2d 854 (CA9 1991), noting that a "person" who may be authorized by a federal court to proceed in forma pauperis under § 1915(a) may be an "association" under a definition provided in 1 U.S.C. § 1. The Council being an "association," it was a "person" within the meaning of § 1915(a), and could proceed in forma pauperis upon the requisite proof of its indigency. The court found it adequate proof that prison regulations prohibited the Council from maintaining a bank account, and, apparently, from owning any other asset.

We granted certiorari, 503 U.S. (1992), to resolve a conflict between that decision and the holding in FDM Manufacturing Co. v. Scottsdale Ins. Co., 855 F.2d 213 (CA5 1988) (per curiam) ("person," within the meaning of § 1915(a), includes only natural persons). We reverse.



Both § 1915(a), which the Council invoked in seeking to be excused from prepaying filing fees, and § 1915(d) employ the word "person" in controlling access to four benefits provided by § 1915 and a related statute. First, a qualifying person may "commence, prosecute or defend . . . any suit, action or proceeding, civil or criminal, or appeal therein, without prepayment of fees and costs or security therefor." 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a). Second, a court may in certain cases direct the United States to pay the person's expenses in printing the record on appeal and preparing a transcript of proceedings before a United States magistrate. § 1915(b). Third, if the person is unable to employ counsel, "the court may request an attorney to represent [him]." § 1915(d). And, fourth, in an appeal, the United States will pay for a transcript of proceedings below "if the trial judge or a circuit judge certifies that the appeal is not frivolous (but presents a substantial question)." 28 U.S.C. § 753(f); see ibid. (detailing slightly different criteria for habeas proceedings).

"Persons" were not always so entitled, for the benefits of § 1915 were once available only to "citizens," a term held, in the only two cases on the issue, to exclude corporations. See Atlantic S. S. Corp. v. Kelley, 79 F.2d 339, 340 (CCA5 1935) (construing the predecessor to § 1915); Quittner v. Motion Picture Producers & Distributors of America, Inc., 70 F.2d 331, 332 (CCA2 1934) (same). In 1959, however, Congress passed a one-sentence provision that "section 1915(a) of title 28, United States Code, is amended by deleting the word 'citizen' and inserting in place thereof the word 'person.'" Pub. L. 86-320, 73 Stat. 590. For this amendment, the sole reason cited in the legislative history was to extend the statutory benefits to aliens.*fn2


The relevant portion of the Dictionary Act, 1 U.S.C. § 1, provides (as it did in 1959) that

"in determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, unless the context indicates otherwise --

"the word "person" . . . includes corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals."

See 1 U.S.C. § 1 (1958). "Context" here means the text of the Act of Congress surrounding the word at issue, or the texts of other related congressional Acts, and this is simply an instance of the word's ordinary meaning: "the part or parts of a discourse preceding or following a 'text' or passage or a word, or so intimately associated with it as to throw light upon its meaning." Webster's New International Dictionary 576 (2d ed. 1942). While "context" can carry a secondary meaning of "associated surroundings, whether material or mental," ibid., we doubt that the broader sense applies here. The Dictionary Act uses "context" to give an instruction about how to "determine the meaning of an Act of Congress," a purpose suggesting the primary sense. If Congress had meant to point further afield, as to legislative history, for example, it would have been natural to use a more spacious phrase, like "evidence of congressional intent," in place of "context."

If "context" thus has a narrow compass, the "indication" contemplated by 1 U.S.C. § 1 has a broader one. The Dictionary Act's very reference to contextual "indication" bespeaks something more than an express contrary definition, and courts would hardly need direction where Congress had thought to include an express, specialized definition for the purpose of a particular Act; ordinary rules of statutory construction would prefer the specific definition over the Dictionary Act's general one. Where a court needs help is in the awkward case where Congress provides no particular definition, but the definition in 1 U.S.C. § 1 seems not to fit. ...

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