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Siding with jail officials, court lifts injunction that imposed coronavirus safety measures

A divided Supreme Court on Wednesday revoked a lower-court order that required a California jail to implement stricter health and safety measures in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The 5-4 decision to undo the lower court’s injunction is the latest in a series of emergency rulings the justices have issued in disputes relating to the pandemic.

The decision drew an eight-page dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who accused the five-justice majority of disregarding the lower court’s factual findings and removing crucial judicial supervision of a jail that, she wrote, has “failed to safeguard the health of the inmates in its care.” Sotomayor also reiterated a concern that she raised last week about the court’s recent willingness to intervene on an emergency basis and second-guess lower courts’ judgments about how to manage pandemic-related litigation.

The Wednesday ruling in Barnes v. Ahlman involves the Orange County Jail, which is located in Santa Ana, California, and currently houses more than 3,000 inmates, many of them awaiting trial. Between late March and Aug. 3, 476 people tested positive for COVID-19 at the jail. A group of inmates sued jail officials in April, alleging that the officials were failing in various ways to prevent the spread of the virus. They said the jail was ignoring recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by refusing to allow social distancing and failing to isolate symptomatic inmates. They alleged that inmates “were required to clean the bedding of detainees who tested positive for COVID-19” and that infected or symptomatic detainees were allowed to mingle with others in common areas of the jail. They also said the jail lacked proper cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.

On May 26, a federal district judge in California issued a preliminary injunction requiring the jail to take various public health measures to combat the spread of the virus. Among other things, the injunction ordered the jail to allow inmates to maintain at least six feet of social distancing; ensure that staff wear CDC-recommended masks and other personal protective equipment; immediately test inmates, staff or visitors who show symptoms of COVID-19; properly quarantine anyone who has the virus or was exposed to it; and provide soap, hand sanitizer and other cleaning products to inmates.

Jail officials appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit and asked that court to pause the injunction while the appeal proceeded. The 9th Circuit declined to do so, prompting the officials to ask the Supreme Court for an emergency stay of the injunction.

In their application to the justices, the officials said the district court’s injunction was an unwarranted micromanagement of local jail procedures by the federal judiciary. They said that, prior to the injunction, the jail had “largely implemented” CDC guidelines “to the extent possible,” and they complained that the injunction required measures not endorsed by the CDC. They also said that, between March 1 and May 19, they voluntarily released more than half of the jail’s inmates to provide more space within the jail for social distancing. And they said they have “essentially eliminated COVID within the jail population with the exception of new detainees.”

Lawyers for the inmates disputed the officials’ claim that the virus is under control at the jail. They told the justices that, on July 24, a record-high 56 symptomatic individuals were in medical isolation at the jail, up from four symptomatic individuals who were in isolation a month earlier. “Even these numbers are likely an underestimate of the true extent of the disease,” they said, because jail officials “have never attempted or even claimed to test everyone, regardless of symptoms.”

In a three-sentence order on Wednesday, the Supreme Court sided with the jail officials and granted their request for a temporary stay of the district court’s injunction while the litigation proceeds. The five conservative justices voted to grant the stay but, as is customary with emergency orders, did not explain their reasoning. Sotomayor’s dissent was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan noted that they would have denied the request for a stay, but they did not join Sotomayor’s dissent.

In her dissent, Sotomayor called the majority’s decision to grant the stay an “extraordinary intervention” that failed to respect the findings of the district court, including a finding that – contrary to the assertions of jail officials – the jail had fallen “well short” of CDC guidelines and “exposed its inmates to significant risks from a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease.” And she argued that the Supreme Court’s action is premature. Citing her own dissent from the court’s decision last week to impose a stay on a lower court’s ruling that had loosened Idaho ballot-initiative rules during the pandemic, Sotomayor wrote that “[t]his Court again intervenes to grant a stay before the Circuit below has heard and decided the case on the merits.”

Recommended Citation: James Romoser, Siding with jail officials, court lifts injunction that imposed coronavirus safety measures, SCOTUSblog (Aug. 5, 2020, 11:57 PM),