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June 14, 2010

What exactly happens now with the litigation over California's prison problems?

I am a bit perplexed by what the Supreme Court did this morning in response to the appeal of the California prisoner litigation coming from the Ninth Circuit. Here is the full text of what SCOTUS said in its orders this morning:

JURISDICTION POSTPONED

09-1233 SCHWARZENEGGER, GOV. OF CA V. PLATA, MARCIANO, ET AL.:  Further consideration of the question of jurisdiction is postponed to the hearing of the case on the merits.

Here is how Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog explains this order:

The Supreme Court, having already shown it was interested in the controversy, on Monday finally agreed to rule on at least part of the state of California’s complaint about being forced by a federal court to release close to 40,000 inmates from its 33 state prisons, to relieve over-crowding and a serious health crisis. The Court will set the case for a hearing in the Term starting Oct. 4, but the first issue up for review is whether a three-judge U.S. District Court had the authority even to issue an inmate release order. The Justices said they will consider that jurisdictional question when the case is called for a merits hearing on the case of Schwarzenegger, et al., v. Plata, et al. (09-1233). The case could produce a major ruling on federal judges’ power to order prison releases under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996....

The Court’s order Monday in the California prison case grew out of prolonged litigation in federal court over threats to the health of both prisoners and prison staff members as a result of severe over-crowding in the state’s prisons. Two separate lawsuits by prison inmates ultimately were merged before a three-judge District Court, to consider whether a mandate to free prisoners would ultimately be necessary to meet the health threat. The state’s prisons were operating at close to twice their actual design capacity. The District Court in the end ordered California to reduce over-crowding from the peak of 196 percent of design capacity to 137.5 percent, and to do so in two years.

Earlier, the Supreme Court had declined to step into the controversy, but expressly noted that it had been assured that no prisoner release order would be ordered until the Supreme Court had had an opportunity to review it. The release order is now on hold pending final action by the Justices.

The question of jurisdiction that lingers in the case is whether the District Court satisfied the requirements specified under the 1996 federal act for any inmate release order.  Under that act, a prisoner release order may be adopted only as a “last resort,” only if it has previously issued other, less-intrusive orders that had failed to remedy violations of inmates’ rights, and only if it found that state officials had had a reasonable time to comply with such prior orders. The state contends that the District Court did not have jurisdiction, because it did not give officials time enough to try to cure the over-crowding situation on their own.

Only if the Justices find that the District Court had jurisdiction would they move on to decide whether the specific order at issue was justified. The case is not likely to come up for a hearing until the winter.

So does this means there will be full SCOTUS briefing and a full "traditional" SCOTUS oral argument on both the jurisdiction issue and the merits issues over the next few months?  Does this mean all efforts to reform California's prison over-crowding now can and should be put on hold while briefing and argument go forward?  Does this mean these issues more likely or less likely to be a topic of political debate in California's many contested elections this Fall?

Put simply, I am confused and would be grateful for any reports from anyone in the know about what this seemingly cryptic SCOTUS order means both practically and politically.

UPDATE:  Kent Scheidegger has comments on what happens now in the comments and here at C&C.  In addition, here are some early media reports on this case:

June 14, 2010 at 12:40 PM | Permalink

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Comments

"So does this means there will be full SCOTUS briefing and a full 'traditional' SCOTUS oral argument on both the jurisdiction issue and the merits issues over the next few months?"

Yes.

"Does this mean all efforts to reform California's prison over-crowding now can and should be put on hold while briefing and argument go forward?"

A political question, not a judicial question.

"Does this mean these issues more likely or less likely to be a topic of political debate in California's many contested elections this Fall?"

"This," meaning the Supreme Court's decision to defer the jurisdiction question rather than decide at this point that it does have jurisdiction, will not have any effect on the politics, IMHO. That's way too subtle for the rough arena of political debate.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jun 14, 2010 1:13:38 PM

See also this post.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jun 14, 2010 2:05:54 PM

Why is this a jurisdictional question? Are we talking about the Supreme Court's jurisdiction or the district court's? If we are talking about the district court's, it sounds like the district court has to make certain findings and take certain actions before it can order a certain type of relief. Ordering such relief without making those findings or taking those actions may be legal error and grounds for appeal, but does it really deprive the district court of *jurisdiction*? I mean, let's say the State failed to appeal -- can they come back years later and try to attack the order based on lack of jurisdiction?

Posted by: Anon | Jun 14, 2010 3:00:02 PM

Anon, we are talking about the Supreme Court's jurisdiction. Lyle has revised his SCOTUSblog post.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jun 14, 2010 6:34:20 PM

personaly considering these hearings and the court orders have been coming and being ordered by the court for calif to clean up it's act for what a DECADE or so for them to now claim the court didnt' have jurisdiction because it didn't give calif ENOUGH TIME to fix the problem is CRIMINAL in the extreme. Any one dumb enough to have signed off on it should be arrested and charged with lieing to the court.

Posted by: rodsmith3510 | Jun 14, 2010 10:22:20 PM

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