The U.S. Supreme Court, with three justices dissenting, on Friday rejected the state of California's request to delay a district court order requiring the release of nearly 10,000 prisoners by the end of the year to relieve overcrowding.
The majority offered no reasons for denial of the governor's application for a stay, but the decision prompted a bitter dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia, one reminiscent of the angry dissents when the case first reached the justices in 2011.
Two years ago in Brown v. Plata, a 5-4 majority affirmed the district court's order that California release 46,000 prisoners. The court, led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, held that the lower court order was necessary to remedy the violation of prisoners' constitutional rights and was authorized by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The dissenters were Scalia, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., and justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr.
The state's prisons were designed to house a population of just under 80,000, but at the time of the lower court's order, the population was almost double that number. The overcrowding had produced dangerous and unsanitary conditions. The three-judge lower court had found that the prisoner release was the only remedy likely to alleviate the conditions and that California, because of its fiscal problems, was unlikely to build its way out of the problem. The order was the result of class action lawsuits and repeated negotiations with the state for nearly 25 years.
In its application for the stay, the state said it had made significant progress towards relieving the overcrowding and that the next prisoner release would involve those who had committed serious crimes.
The justices' denial of the stay on Friday included a simple statement that Alito would grant the application for a stay. But Scalia, joined by Thomas, reiterated his 2011 opinion that the "terrible" lower court injunction "goes beyond what the Prison Litigation Reform Act allows, and "beyond the power of the courts." He criticized the majority for hinting in its 2011 decision that the order might be modified if the state made significant progress towards remedying the unconstitutional violations.
"It appears to have become a standard ploy, when this Court vastly expands the Power of the Black Robe, to hint at limitations that make it seem not so bad," wrote Scalia. "Comes the moment of truth, the hinted-at limitation proves a sham."