The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to reconsider a lower court’s order that California release tens of thousands of inmates because of overcrowding issues in that state’s prisons.
A panel of three federal judges had previously ruled that California’s prison overcrowding was the “primary cause” of inmates being denied their constitutional rights to adequate medical and mental health care. The judges said releasing inmates was the only solution to stop what amounted to constitutionally prohibited cruel and unusual punishment faced by the state’s 165,000 inmates, the most of any state.
The judges order in that case, which originally dates back to 2001, requires the state to release inmates so its prison population reaches 137.5 percent of capacity in the next two years. The state’s 33 prisons are currently at roughly twice their designed capacity.
The ruling could mean between 38,000 and 46,000 inmates would have to be released.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican state lawmakers and other state officials appealed the ruling by the three-judge panel to the Supreme Court, arguing the panel “entered an unprecedented order that intrudes on the state’s authority over its prison system and constrains the state’s ability to respond to problems within its prison system and more broadly throughout California.”
“The three-judge court has dictated to the state the single method it must use (prisoner release) to address alleged constitutional violations involving health care,” wrote lawyers for the governor, who suggested less drastic legislative or administrative measures could correct the problems resulting from overcrowding.
But lawyers for the inmates argued the state’s appeal has no merit and is cast “in the broadest terms possible, invoking grand principles of federalism and judicial activism.”
“There are, in fact, no substantial legal disputes,” the inmates’ lawyers wrote.” The three-judge court issued the order on appeal cautiously, after all other efforts employed by the lower courts to remedy the constitutional deficiencies had been failing for years, and after the governor, the head of California’s prison system and the court-appointed receiver all agreed that the prison crowding crisis in California poses a serious and immediate threat to prisoners’ lives.”
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case during its October 2010 term.
In other business Monday, the court ruled in a 7-2 decision that the late filing of an appeal by Albert Holland, an inmate on death row in Florida, could be excused because it was his court-appointed attorney who failed to meet critical deadlines in the case despite continuous pleas from Holland to file the appeal.
The decision reverses the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which had ruled the case did not have “extraordinary circumstances” and, as result, could not go forward regardless of the reason for the late filing.
In writing the majority ruling, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the failure by defense attorneys to file critical motions of time “seriously prejudiced a client, who thereby lost what was likely his single opportunity for federal habeas review of the lawfulness of his imprisonment and of his death sentence.”
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia said the Constitution does not empower federal courts to rewrite in the name of inequity rules made by Congress. He said endowing unelected judges with that power is “irreconcilable with our system,” placing the whole rights and property of the community under the arbitrary will of the judge.
“The danger is doubled when we disregard our own precedent, leaving only our own consciences to constrain our discretion,” he said.
Holland fatally shot a Florida police officer in 1990 who tried to arrest him shortly after he sexually assaulted a woman in a brutal attack that left her with serious head wounds. Holland was subsequently convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.
• Ben Conery can be reached at email@example.com.
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