Our previous post was devoted to Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Plata, and discerning readers may have noticed we did not discuss the dissents. I didn’t comment on those because, to me, they represent the worst kind of populist alarmism and rhetoric of fear, and pretty much the last thing we need now. But I have to say something about the rhetoric in Justice Scalia’s dissent, because being silent about such matters is tantamount to letting them happen without outrage in the public sphere.
Justice Scalia writes:
One would think that, before allowing the decree of a federal district court to release 46,000 convicted felons, this Court would bend every effort to read the law in such a way as to avoid that outrageous result.
The “outrageous result” is having human beings caged and soiled in their feces and urine for want of medical treatment, Nino. The “outrageous result” is that people needlessly die waiting to be examined and diagnosed. Your comments about the lack of standing of inmates are disenfranchising and dehumanizing. It’s fairly obvious that the thought that there, by the grace of God, goes you, has never crossed your mind. Clearly, because during the oral argument, when Justice Sotomayor was horrified and heartbroken to hear about these inflictions of needless suffering, you told her off, saying “don’t be rhetorical.”
Your cruel mockery of human beings like you and complete lack of human empathy really shine through in this remarkable passage:
Most of them will not be prisoners with medical conditions orsevere mental illness; and many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.
This has to be one of the most backwards, Lombrosian, objectifying, smug paragraphs ever written by a judge about inmates, or really, about anyone. It recalls Justice Holmes’ infamous comment in Buck v. Bell, that “three generations of imbeciles is enough”, ironically shattering the life of someone who was not mentally defective.
These are shameful words, but Justice Scalia is not the only one who needs to be ashamed. We all share in the shame. Because the bottom line is that all the horrific abuses in the California correctional system would not have occurred, despite alarmist politics, fear-mongering media, redball cases, and a powerful prison guard union, had it not been for our collective lack of empathy for our fellow Californians behind bars. We have “othered” crime long enough. Empathy has been a long time coming. Fortunately, five out of nine Supreme Court Justices were able to find some within their hearts. Here’s hoping that many taxpayers and policymakers follow their example.