Release Date:  November 24, 2010
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Oral argument in Schwarzenegger v. Plata/Coleman set for Tuesday, November 30

The United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument Tuesday regarding California’s appeal of a January 2010 ruling by a panel of federal judges, ordering the state to reduce its prison population by 27%.  The three-judge panel determined that it is necessary to release approximately 46,000 inmates to correct a level of prison health care and mental health services that the panel concluded violates the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.  In the companion cases of Schwarzenegger v. Plata and Schwarzenegger v. Coleman, the high court will determine whether the largest inmate release order in history complies with federal law.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation has filed argument with the Court to encourage a decision overturning the release order.

“There are many problems with this release order, beginning with the selection of members for the panel and the scope of evidence they chose to consider,” said Foundation Legal Director Kent Scheidegger.  “A release of this magnitude will result in the robbery, rape, and murder of many people who could have been spared,” he added.

The Coleman case began with a 1990 lawsuit filed by prison inmates with Federal District Judge Lawrence Karlton.  The lawsuit alleged that the state Department of Corrections was failing to deliver adequate mental health services to inmates.  In 1995, Judge Karlton ruled in favor of the inmates and ordered the state to rectify the shortfalls in its mental health delivery system.  A Special Master was appointed to supervise the process.  In 2006, citing reports by the Special Master that the state had failed to meet its obligation, Judge Karlton ordered the Schwarzenegger administration to propose specific increases in the prison mental health budget to the legislature.

The Plata case was initially filed in Federal District Court in 2001 before Judge Maxine M. Chesney.  The case involved a claim by prison inmates alleging constitutional violations in the delivery of medical care in California prisons.  Another judge sitting in the same district, Judge Thelton Henderson, was presiding over an inmate lawsuit filed earlier (Madrid v. Gomez), which attacked general conditions at Pelican Bay state prison.  Citing a rule adopted by federal judges in that district, the lawyers for Plata filed a “Notice of Related Case,” which identified the Madrid lawsuit as a case raising claims similar to those in Plata.  Exercising his authority under the “related case” rule, Judge Henderson reassigned the Plata case to himself.  A year later, Judge Henderson ruled that the state was failing to provide constitutionally adequate health care to inmates and ordered compliance.  In 2006, noting the state’s failure to comply, the Judge appointed a receiver to take control of the entire prison health delivery system.

The law governing federal court intervention in the management of state prisons was adopted by Congress in 1996 in response to an explosion of lawsuits filed by prison inmates in the 1980s and the propensity of some federal judges to order massive expenditures of tax monies and inmate releases to comply with their judgments.  The Prison Litigation Reform Act restricted the power of federal judges to order inmate releases.  The Act prohibited a single federal judge from issuing an inmate release order, requiring instead that when a judge hearing a lawsuit concludes that an inmate release order may be warranted, he must request the Chief Judge of the circuit to appoint a panel of three judges to consider the matter.  The purpose of this provision was to balance the opinion of the requesting judge, who would serve on the panel, with two other judges who were not predisposed to inmate releases as a remedy to the lawsuit’s claims.

In 2007, Judges Henderson and Karlton took the unprecedented step of holding a joint hearing to review a petition by the inmates’ lawyers for appointment of a three-judge panel to consider inmate releases as a remedy to the state’s failure to comply with their judgments in the two lawsuits.  On July 23, 2007, Judge Karlton ruled that, “After careful review of the record in this action, this court has come, with extreme reluctance but firm conviction, to the conclusion that the overcrowding crisis in the CDCR is preventing the delivery of constitutionally adequate mental health care to the plaintiff class and, therefore, that some form of limitation on the inmate population must be considered.”  A similar ruling regarding prison medical care was issued by Judge Henderson on the same day.

Both judges requested that a panel be appointed and that the panel be convened to consider the evidence in both the Plata and Coleman cases.  Later that year, Chief Judge Mary Schroeder appointed Judges Karlton and Henderson to serve on the panel and announced that activist Judge Stephen Reinhardt would be the third member.  Quoting from the Foundation’s brief before the Supreme Court, “If counsel for the prisoners could have chosen the panel themselves, this is very likely the panel they would have chosen.”

The panel’s hearing was held a year and a half later.  At that hearing, it declined to consider evidence of improvements in the prison health delivery system, which had occurred over the previous 18 months, deciding that it did not have jurisdiction to do so.  In August 2009, the panel announced that it had agreed on an inmate release order and the scale of the release, but stopped short of ordering the release.  The state asked the U. S. Supreme Court to review the holding in the new term, which would begin in October 2009.  Lawyers representing the inmates argued that because the panel had not issued a formal release order, the case was not yet available for review. The Supreme Court agreed.  On January 12, 2010, the panel announced its formal “Order to Reduce Prison Population.”  In June, the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to review that order in the fall of 2010.

The Foundation’s scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief cites the three-judge panel’s decision not to consider new evidence of improvements in California’s prison system as contrary to established law.  The Foundation asserts that this misunderstanding of its duty to review all relevant evidence constitutes reversible error.  The CJLF brief also characterizes the manipulation of the process which resulted in the two requesting judges serving on the three-judge panel as a “maneuver” that undermines the intent of the law.  The Chief Judge’s “astonishing” choice of Judge Reinhardt, perhaps the most pro-criminal jurist on the federal bench, for the third member only exacerbated an obvious bias on the panel.

Noting that briefs from the State of California, 144 state legislators, and 18 other states have explained the serious threat to public safety that the release of 46,000 convicted felons would present, the CJLF brief argues that the panel’s manipulation of its two orders with the evident goal of postponing Supreme Court review for an additional year “smacks of an intent to defeat the public’s right to prompt review.”

For these reasons the Foundation is asking for a decision to overturn the inmate release order and that a new panel be appointed with only one of the original district judges as a member.