SACRAMENTO (AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown’s continued defiance of a federal court order to reduce the state’s inmate population could face a difficult time in the appeals process because the U.S. Supreme Court has already weighed in on the matter, a legal expert said Friday.
The governor’s administration said it will appeal the decision issued Thursday by a three-judge panel, which denied Brown’s request to lift the population cap. The judges also threatened to hold him and other state officials in contempt if they failed to comply with the earlier court rulings to reduce the prison population.
The state has said it will remain 9,000 prisoners over the court-mandated cap by the end-of-year deadline, and Brown has said releasing any more inmates would jeopardize public safety.
“If they feel bad now, wait till another 10,000 hit the streets under the orders of the federal courts,” Brown told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who is traveling with him in China. “That’s not going to happen, though, until we appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.”
The Supreme Court already ruled in favor of the prison population cap, in 2011, so the federal appeals court may not be welcoming of another challenge by the state, said Mary-Beth Moylan, a professor at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento.
Only in rare instances, such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that led to desegregation fights in the South, have state officials openly defied federal court rulings, she said.
“It is rare to threaten a governor with contempt, but it’s really rare for governors to defy orders of federal courts,” Moylan said.
Thursday’s ruling came more than three years after the state was ordered to reduce its inmate population to improve medical and mental health care.
It said state officials must take whatever steps are necessary to comply or face the consequences. Otherwise, “they will without further delay be subject to findings of contempt, individually and collectively,” it said.
Don Specter, who is suing the state over prison crowding, said the judges have shown extraordinary patience with Brown but signaled in the ruling that they are willing to force him to comply.
“They made clear in yesterday’s order that they’ve just had it,” he said in an interview Friday. “It’s clear from the court’s opinion they view the governor as the main person who’s involved in setting the strategy for the state.”
Specter said the federal panel could fine the governor or issue an order taking control of prisons from him, but Moylan said the contempt threat may be little more than a gesture to get the state to take further action.
The governor told a reporter for The Sacramento Bee who was covering his visit to China that California has improved its inmate medical and mental health treatment to such a degree that the care is “the best health care in America and probably in the world.
“Now the judge sees it differently, and all I can say is I respect his differences, but we will take our case to the higher courts,” he said.
In an emailed statement, corrections department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said the administration will appeal because the quality of medical care delivered to California’s prison inmates “far exceeds” the requirements of the Constitution.
“The court’s population cap is based on an outdated one person per cell concept of design capacity that does not accurately reflect the prison system’s true capacity,” she said. “No other prison system in the country uses this one-inmate-per-cell measurement to determine capacity. With all of the additional treatment space California has added, coupled with the dramatic reduction in the inmate population, California’s prison system is no longer overcrowded.”
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