Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Rounding Up Coverage of Yesterday’s Supreme Court Argument on California Prison Overcrowding

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For news coverage of yesterday’s oral arguments, How Appealing has the full roundup. SCOTUSblog has also posted attorney podcasts, although I haven’t had a chance to listen. I’ll post my analysis of the oral argument transcript (PDF) later today, but in the meantime, here are some highlights from the news and blogosphere:

KALW — The Explainer:

[If] this case, which has spanned decades and involved unprecedented scrutiny, is not seen as a beaming example of when court intervention is appropriate, it’s hard to envision any role for federal judicial intervention in prisons. Which would mean prison reforms would need to come from the hands of legislators–which historically, has been rare.

California Corrections Crisis:

In the end, decision in the case appears to focus on Justice Kennedy (who is so often the necessary fifth vote that observers call it “the Kennedy Court”). And while he did not show his hand entirely, he did interrupt Phillips’ argument that the district court acted “prematurely,” as follows: “The problem I have with that, Mr. Phillips, is that at some point the Court has to say: You have been given enough time; the constitutional violation still persists…. Overcrowding is the principal cause, and it’s now time for a remedy.” Justice Kennedy also opined that “there is massive expert testimony to support … the prisoners,” and asked why the district court’s order was not “perfectly reasonable.”

Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog:

Justice Ginsburg, now and then abandoning her usual gentle and understated manner, was energetic in her defense of the need for the courts to do something after the hazards to inmate health had been litigated for two decades.

The state of California’s lawyer, Washington attorney Carter G. Phillips, had barely opened his argument with a suggestion that the District Court’s prisoner release order was “extraordinarily premature,” when Ginsburg reminded him that one of the cases “has been pending for 20 years.”  One judge, she recalled, had issued 70 remedial orders.  “How much longer do we have to wait? Another 20 years?” she demanded.

The Los Angeles Times:

Justice Stephen G. Breyer said the state had admitted it violated the Constitution by not providing decent care for its inmates. Photos from California’s prisons “are pretty horrendous,” he said.

When the state’s attorney argued that the prisons weren’t as bad as the critics said, Justice Elena Kagan said the judges who had heard the evidence disagreed. “You are asking us to re-find the facts,” she said. “These judges have been involved in these cases since the beginning.”

San Quentin inmate Robert Gilliam (on overcrowding more generally):

It’s time the public demand a better return on their tax dollars. In the area of corrections, that means not simply locking offenders away for extended periods of time – it means using the time wisely. Prisons shouldn’t be society’s dark secret. People should know and care about what goes on inside them. They should care about how prisoners are treated, and they should demand that all prisoners receive a basic education, meaning an attainment of a GED and a useable job skill, as well as comprehensive drug treatment. The public should demand that housing and employment resources be available to parolees who want them.


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  1. […] Law Blog posted a link to the transcript of Schwarzenegger v. Plata.  I really enjoyed Justice Sotomayor’s […]

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