Brown v. Plata

This week the Supreme Court, via a one-line order by Justice Anthony Kennedy, dismissed an appeal in Brown v. Plata for want of jurisdiction. Thousands of law students enrolled in Fed Jur and Fed Courts classes this semester may argue that there’s nothing sexy about jurisdiction, even by law’s substantially reduced standards for “sexiness.” The dismissal of Plata, though, has some significant effects for millions of people.

In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 opinion authored by Justice Kennedy that overcrowding in California prisons caused continuing violations of prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights to adequate health care and that the overcrowding problem required a population limit. (Justice Scalia dissented, joined by Justice Thomas. Justice Alito also dissented, joined by the Chief.) As a result, California Governor Jerry Brown needed to drastically improve prison conditions or drastically reduce the state’s prison population by releasing inmates.

A flurry of state appeals and motions to change the original order ensued. Then, on September 24 of this year, a three-judge panel gave Brown until the end of January to meet its original order to remove more than 9,600 inmates from California prisons by the end of the year, absent successful negotiations with the plaintiffs. In an attempt to sufficiently improve prison conditions, Governor Brown negotiated a deal with legislators to spend $400 million on improvement of health care services to California prisoners, but he believed he needed more time in order to fully comply by the panel’s deadline. He filed an an appeal for a stay with SCOTUS….

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Justice Kennedy says: 'Open Sesame.'

It’s late May, so we’re entering the home stretch of the Supreme Court Term. Over the next few weeks, the Court will be handing down opinions in the most contentious, closely divided cases.

One such opinion came down today: Brown v. Plata (formerly Schwarzenegger v. Plata). In this high-profile case, a three-judge district court issued an order that directed the State of California to reduce its prison population — e.g., by releasing prisoners (as many as 46,000, at the time of the order) — in order to address problems with overcrowding and poor health care for inmates.

When SCOTUS granted cert, I thought that it did so in order to summarily reverse. Federal judges running penal institutions, ordering tens of thousands of convicted criminals to be let out onto the streets? The district court’s order reeked of the kind of Ninth Circuit liberal activism that doesn’t sit well with the Roberts Court. (Note that one of the members of the three-judge panel was the notoriously left-wing Judge Stephen Reinhardt.)

Well, I was wrong. The Court just affirmed, 5-4, in an opinion by (who else?) Justice Anthony Kennedy.

There were two dissents, by Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito. Justice Scalia’s opinion in particular contains some stinging (but ultimately ineffectual) benchslaps….

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