WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to consider Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's effort to block a court-ordered release of some 40,000 inmates from overcrowded state prisons.
The decision to hear the case in the new term that starts Oct. 4 means at least four justices think Schwarzenegger's appeal is important enough to merit review. It's good news for the governor, who contends California-based judges overstepped their power.
"We are pleased the U.S. Supreme Court will hear our appeal," said Schwarzenegger's spokeswoman, Rachel Arrezola. "We continue to believe federal judges do not have the authority to order the early release of prisoners in our state."
Arrezola added that "California should be able to take action on its own to keep its citizens safe without interference from the federal courts."
Following a lengthy trial, a special panel of three federal judges determined in August that serious overcrowding in California's 33 prisons was the "primary cause" for violations of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The three-judge panel ordered release of enough prisoners so the inmate population would come within 137.5 percent of the prisons' total design capacity. That amounts to between 38,000 and 46,000 inmates being released.
The judges also postponed implementation of the order pending the state's appeal.
The Supreme Court's review next fall will potentially be among the first heard by Elena Kagan, if the Obama administration solicitor general wins Senate confirmation to the court. Kagan's confirmation hearing starts June 28.
The review of the case called Schwarzenegger v. Plata will also be closely watched in other states, which also face prison overcrowding problems.
"If the Supreme Court were to decide to reverse the three-judge panel, it would have far-reaching effects," said Donald Specter, an attorney with the Berkeley-based Prison Law Office. "It would reduce the ability of (other) courts to order the reduction of prison populations."
Specter added that he was "not that surprised" that the Supreme Court decided to hear the case, given its importance and the direct appeal made by California.
The Prison Law Office has been representing Marciano Plata, a former Salinas Valley State Prison inmate who was recently released, as well as other inmates in the long-running class action lawsuit. Their original lawsuit, filed in 2001, alleged prison health services were inadequate.
In a highly detailed, 184-page opinion, the three-judge panel concluded that state prison medical care was "woefully and constitutionally inadequate." In some cases, the judges noted inmates have waited for years to receive medical care.
Since reaching an all-time population record of more than 160,000 in October 2006, the state's adult prison institutions have operated at almost double their intended capacity.
"The state's prisons have become places of extreme peril to the safety of persons they house ... while contributing little to the safety of California residents," the three judges concluded.
The Schwarzenegger administration appealed, citing what officials called in a legal brief "profound practical consequences and public importance." The administration further characterized the three-judge panel's inmate-release order as "unprecedented" and said it went well beyond the court's authority.
The Supreme Court must decide whether the three-judge panel had the legal jurisdiction to order release of inmates in this case and, if so, whether the inmate release itself was warranted.