Image from CDCR’s three-judge-panel page.

A decision came out yesterday from the three-judge-panel that issued the original Plata v. Schwarzenegger decision: The state must comply with the original order. Moreover, should it not do so, it will be held in contempt. The L.A. Times reports:

In a blistering 71-page ruling, the jurists rejected Brown’s bid to end restrictions they imposed on crowding in the lockups. The state cannot maintain inmate numbers that violate orders intended to eliminate dangerous conditions behind bars, they said.

Brown and other officials “will not be allowed to continue to violate the requirements of the Constitution of the United States,” the judges wrote.

“At no point over the past several months have defendants indicated any willingness to comply, or made any attempt to comply, with the orders of this court,” they said. “In fact, they have blatantly defied them.”

The judges gave the state 21 days to submit a plan for meeting the population target by the end of the year. Administration officials said they would appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The piece pretty much speaks for itself, but I do want to say something about this to readers wondering why the state hasn’t been held in contempt so far, which is a question I get asked a lot when I talk about this. I think it’s important to understand that, while federal courts–rather than state administrators–have pretty much been the go-to place for inmate rights suits, courts are not natural policy designers. The judicial system is built on the premise of case-by-case arbitration, with an outcome that “takes sides” in a dispute between two parties (Martin Shapiro calls this “the logic of the triad“). Their ability to generalize and supervise is limited. The ways they perceive the world, discursively, are limited to assessing whether state agencies behaved in a way that violated constitutional standards – yes or no. Orders, supervision, revisiting issues–courts do all of those, but they do them because they have to. The hard work has to be done primarily by the state. Which is why, whenever possible, having a consent decree is a priority, and if that is impossible, it is at least useful to get some cooperation from the state and refrain from steps that will escalate the animosity between the state and the courts.

The escalation here–actually threatening the Governor with contempt–is understandable if one considers what Jerry has done in the last few weeks. He has attacked the special masters and receiver, and even griped about attorney’s fees for the inmates’ advocates. When seen in the context of this public relations crusade to besmirch the other side and the court-ordered mechanism, a threat of contempt is a logical response. And of course, the state retaliates by threatening an appeal to the Supreme Court. This is a collision course that will not end well, and it would behoove the Governor, and the state representatives, to consider growing up and collaborating with the courts. As things stand now, everyone has plenty to lose.

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