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New plea: California prisoners still at risk

Arguing that state officials in California continue to defy court orders to reduce dangerous overcrowding in their prisons, and are vowing even further “intransigence,” lawyers for inmates urged the Supreme Court on Friday afternoon to refuse to relax existing mandates to act.  The brief in opposition in Brown v. Plata (application 13A57) is here.

A three-judge district court, in the latest action in a running feud with state officials, has directed the release of some 9,600 inmates to help assure proper medical and mental health care for ill inmates.   The state’s government leaders have said that this order will require them to free many dangerous inmates, threatening public safety.  They have asked Justice Anthony M. Kennedy to put that release order on hold until the state can challenge it in a coming appeal.

Replying to that request, the inmates’ attorneys said that the Supreme Court had already upheld the prison population reduction goal two years ago, and the district court’s orders do nothing more than seek to achieve that goal in the face of continued defiance by Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr., and other state officers.  The latest order would compel a sufficient release to achieve a statewide prison population of 137.5% of design capacity, and to do so by year’s end.

To the state’s contention that the goal is no longer needed, because conditions have been improved significantly, the opposing brief argued: “Two years ago, this Court held that the 137.5 percent cap is necessary to remedy ongoing and severe constitutional violations.”  Instead of merely asking the lower court to modify the order, the brief said, “they swung for the fences” and asked that the goal be wiped out entirely.

Conditions are not actually improved, the prisoners’ attorneys contended, and that is due in considerable part to state officials’ “footdragging.”  Overcrowding that continues is actually increasing a risk of death to thousands of prisoners from an illness known as “Valley Fever,” the brief said, and yet prison officials did not remove at-risk inmates from two prisons because it claimed it had no place to put them.

Recently, the document said, state officials actually told the district court that they would only move to comply with the latest mandate if the Supreme Court does not step in and delay that order.   The Supreme Court, it added, already told them to comply two years ago, and should not have to do so a second time.  “One mandate from this Court more than suffices,” the filing said.

Among other arguments by the prisoners’ counsel, they contended that the Supreme Court does not even have jurisdiction to review the latest order by the three-judge lower court.  That, too, contributes to the expectation that the Court will not agree to rule anew on the controversy, the filing said.

The state’s request for a postponement of the year-end goal was filed with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who handles emergency legal matters from the geographic area that includes California — that is, the Ninth Circuit.  Kennedy has the authority to act alone on the application, or share it with his colleagues.

Two years ago, the full Court ruled on the earlier round in the dispute, upholding the 137.5% cap by a five-to-four vote.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, New plea: California prisoners still at risk, SCOTUSblog (Jul. 19, 2013, 5:31 PM),