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No delay of prisoner release

The Supreme Court, over three Justices’ dissents, on Friday afternoon refused to delay a lower court order requiring California state prisons to release nearly 10,000 inmates by the end of this year, to relieve overcrowding. In an order containing no explanation, the Court majority denied state officials’ plea to keep the release order on hold until it could be challenged on appeal. The Supreme Court’s ruling did not even mention state officials’ plea to grant full-scale review of the order.

Justice Antonin Scalia, in a bitterly worded dissent joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, called the three-judge District Court’s release mandate a “terrible injunction” that will have the grave consequence of releasing many dangerous prisoners. Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., noted simply that he would grant a postponement.

The Scalia dissent condemned what he called “the Power of the Black Robe” in broadly expanding judicial power, and then hinting at limitations “that make it seem not so bad.” He was referring to the Court’s ruling in this same case, two years ago, suggesting that the state might seek and get some relief from an earlier release order. “Comes the moment of truth,” Scalia wrote, “the hinted-at limitation proves a sham.” The District Court judges, he suggested, have now called the Court’s earlier “bluff” and ordered further releases.

State officials, the dissenters argued, had come forward with evidence that they have “made meaningful progress” in relieving the serious overcrowding in the state’s 34 adult prisons, and thus it was unnecessary for additional releases to be made.

Under the District Court order, the state’s overall prison population must be reduced by the end of this calendar year to 137.5% of their designed capacity. The order, however, had told officials that it would allow them some flexibility in the methods of reaching that goal. In a series of orders dating back nearly a quarter of a century, the District Court judges have told state officials that the overcrowding is leading to serious physical and mental health threats to the inmates.

Before the latest release order, which is expected to require opening the prison gates to some 9,600 inmates, the state already had released about 37,000 inmates. Officials claimed, in their new challenge, that the only prisoners who could be released to comply to the new mandate are those convicted of very serious crimes.

The state’s challenge to the latest order was filed with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who handles emergency legal matters from the geographic area that includes California — the Ninth Circuit. Kennedy referred it to the full Court, resulting in the denial issued Friday.

Although the voting of the Justices was not spelled out in the order, it appeared that it had been joined by Kennedy, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor.

The state’s challenge had been pending at the Court for more than three weeks; it was filed July 10. The delay in resolving it may have been due to the fact that members of the Court, now in their summer recess, have been traveling.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, No delay of prisoner release, SCOTUSblog (Aug. 2, 2013, 2:56 PM),