Federal Judges Now Running State Prisons?

In Brown v. Plata,(563 U.S. _____,09-1233(5/23/11) The United States Supreme Court has recently ruled on a case originating from a class-action lawsuit filed in 2001 on behalf of several California prisoners alleging that crowded conditions in California prisons violated the ban on cruel and unusual punishment as provided by Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

After a long trial on the merits of the case, a three judge panel of Federal Judges found that serious overcrowding was the primary cause and as such violated the eighth amendment. The judges then ordered 46,000 inmates turned loose.

Needless to say, this caused the state of California enough concern to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supremes recently ruled in a 5-4 decision that a population limit in California prisons could be applied by Federal Judges to remedy the violation of prisoner’s rights, and that the lower court was correct in releasing the inmates.

In effect,said Justice Scalia in a blistering dissent, Federal Judges are now running state prison systems, contrary to the Constitution. Scalia described the court’s majority opinion as ” the most radical injunction issued by a court in our Nation’s history: an order requiring California to release the staggering number of 46,000 convicted criminals.”

What happens after this should be interesting. First, it is my experience that, ironically, most of the places currently housing federal prisoners awaiting trial are pretty miserable places. Many are “private jails” run by corporations for profit–they lack competent staff, are crowded, are lax in security, and are generally far short of a model for anyone, much less for those awaiting trial before the same judges who are now running California prisons.

Secondly, Congress as an institution does not like Federal judges. The Federal Sentencing Guidelines are part of the legislative body’s reaction to Federal Judge John Sirica’s muscle in the Watergate days of the Seventies which resulted in the resignation of President Nixon. Congress continues to pass mandatory minimum sentences to further limit discretion on the part of sentencing judges in their application of the Guidelines. In short, judicial discretion is a nasty phrase in the Congressional dictionary. The two bodies are natural enemies, despite the fact that judges are political appointees.

Congress is certainly not going to sit still for this latest example of judicial stick-wielding, and I am certain that the reaction will be more legislation restricting judicial discretion.