FURTHER UPDATE Thursday p.m.   The state officials’ reply was filed Thursday, completing the briefing on the stay application.  It can be found here.

UPDATE Wednesday p.m.  Lawyers for the inmates involved in the case filed their response on Wednesday, urging denial of the stay of the District Court order. The state’s move, it argued, is premature, because it is not yet under any orders to carry out actual releases.  The opposition brief is here.

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California officials have asked the Supreme Court to put on hold a federal court’s order that will require the release of some 46,000 inmates from state prisons over two years, to relieve “unprecedented overcrowding.”  In a stay application (09A234) filed Friday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other state officials argued that the order will “divert state legislative and executive attention from state-initiated prison reform at a time when it is needed the most.”  The application was filed with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Circuit Justice for the Ninth Circuit. He can decide the issue on his own, or share it with his colleagues.

“Every day that the [release] order hangs over California, it places enormous strains on the state’s  existing resources and creates intolerable anxiety for both officials and residents of the nation’s most populous State,” the application said.

The case involves the Aug. 4 ruling of a three-judge U.S. District Court, finding serious overcrowding in the state’s prison system that, it said, threatens the health and safety of men and women who work in those facilities as well as the inmates housed in them.  Quoting the governor, the District Court said the conditions pose “extreme peril.”  One of two cases filed by prison inmates has been pending in court for 19 years, the other for eight years. While those cases have proceeded, the District Court said, “the outlook for California’s prisons has only grown dimmer.”  (The opinions and orders of the District Court can be found at this link.)

In asking for a postponement of the release order, state officials said they would file an appeal with the Justices, formally challenging it within 30 days, or earlier if necessary to speed up the Court’s examination of the controversy.  The coming appeal will challenge the District Court’s conclusion that the overcrowding is the direct cause of the prison system’s alleged failure to provide adequate medical care and mental health care for the inmates.  Only a release order can deal with the underlying problem, the District Court concluded.

Arguing that there is a strong likelihood that the Supreme Court will accept the case for review, the state’s application said the lower court ruling “sweepingly exceeds any prisoner release relief in history.” It would involve a 25 percent reduction in the prison population in California over the next two years, the officials noted.

The release order is based on the District Court’s interpretation of a 1996 federal law, the Prison Litigation Reform Act.  Under that Act, overcrowding must be the “primary cause” of unconstitutional conditions within a prison system before a prisoner release order may be issued.  This case, state officials said, is the first in which a court has interpreted the “primary cause” requirement.  The order is also the first under the 1996 Act to be issued over a state’s objection, officials added.

Under the order, the state is required to submit to the District Court by Sept. 18 a plan to carry out the prisoner release.  In a ruling on Sept. 3 refusing to stay its order, the District Court said that it would not grant any stays until it had fashioned a final release plan, but would consider doing so once a plan had been approved by the Court so that the final plan could be appealed to the Supreme Court.

The two cases originated as prisoner challenges to medical or mental health care.  A series of remedial orders have been issued over the years, but the District Court found that they had not solved the problems.  At the inmates’ request in late 2006, a three-judge District Court was asssembled to consider a reduction in prison population as the ultimate remedy.

In asking the Supreme Court to step in, state officials said that developing a release plan by the Sept. 18 deadline would require state officials’ attention “at a time when the state’s resources are limited and its personnel already are spread exceedingly thin.  California is in the midst of a historic budget crisis, including massive budget cuts, layoffs, and forced furloughs of its employees.  The diversion of resources from the numerous other pressing matters facing California will be an irreparable injury to the State and its citizens.”

The actual release of so many prisoners, the application went on, “will create dangers to communities throughout California at a time when they are most vulnerable and the state is least equipped to provide services for released prisoners that might prevent future criminal activity.”

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