Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Ninth Circuit to California: Yes, You’re Still in Federal Receivership

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Triple bunks at California State Prison, Los Angeles, in 2006 (photo courtesy CDCR). Severe overcrowding has impeded California's prisons from meeting constitutional health care standards

Health care in California’s prison system, which has been under the control of a federal court-appointed receiver since 2006, will remain that way thanks to a Ninth Circuit ruling handed down last Friday. In the latest of many rulings in the ongoing Plata v. Schwarzenegger class action lawsuit, a three-judge panel rejected the Schwarzenegger administration’s motion to terminate the federal receivership. California is seeking to get its prison system out of federal oversight largely because of budget woes: receiver J. Clark Kelso has ordered the construction of new prison hospitals to bring CDCR health care facilities up to constitutional standards, but the Golden State is already looking at an $20 billion deficit through June 2011. However, in declining to terminate the receivership, the Ninth Circuit panel of judges Schroeder, Canby, and Hawkins (all Democratic appointees) noted that California did not challenge the receiver’s appointment at the time, and has presented no evidence that it can bring its prisons up to constitutional standards in the absence of a federal receiver.

The precise legal questions at issue in this most recent ruling were, first, whether U.S. district court judge Thelton Henderson had the authority to appoint a receiver to begin with, and second, whether the receiver has the authority to order construction projects. I’ll explain the panel’s reasoning on both of those issues after the jump. For more background on the ongoing prison litigation over California’s prisons, see this earlier post.

(1) District Court Authority to Appoint a Receiver under the Prison Litigation Reform Act

California made two arguments to support its claim that Judge Henderson lacked the authority, under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, to appoint a federal receiver to oversee prison health care. First, California argued that the PLRA bars any appointment of a federal receiver, because it specifically provides for the appointment of a “special master.” (Note that special masters can only help develop remedial plans; they do not replace or take authority away from the state. In contrast, a federal receiver can be transferred all the state’s legal authority over a particular area.) The Ninth Circuit panel rejected this argument, noting the long history of federal courts appointing receivers as a means of enforcing state constitutional compliance in the prison context, and the absence of any statutory language or legislative history suggesting that Congress intended to end this practice when it passed the PLRA (PDF pp. 6443-50).

Second, California argued that even if district judges generally have the authority to appoint federal receivers, Judge Henderson lacked that authority in this particular case, because the PLRA requires that remedies “extend no further than necessary.” Here, California argued, the appointment of a special master, rather than a receiver, would have been sufficient to remedy the constitutional violations at issue. The Ninth Circuit panel was dubious of California’s standing to make this argument now, since the state made no such objection to receivership at the time of appointment, but also rejected the argument on the merits, holding that California “has not pointed to any evidence that it could remedy its constitutional violations in the absence of the receivership” (PDF pp. 6542-53).

(2) Federal Receiver’s Authority to Order Prison Construction Projects

California also argued that, even if the federal receiver was properly appointed, he lacks the authority to order expensive prison construction projects. The Ninth Circuit panel rejected this argument on jurisdictional grounds. Although the district court approved the receiver’s construction plans, this approval was not a “final judgment” — since Plata litigation remains ongoing — and as such, is not yet appealable (PDF pp. 6454-56).

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  1. […] Ninth Circuit: Yes, California, You’re Still in Federal Receivership. The latest in the ongoing prison overcrowding litigation in the Golden State, headed to the Supreme Court this fall. […]

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