There's a surrealistic, Alice-in-Wonderland quality to California's perpetual political and legal wrangle over its huge prison system.
The U.S. Supreme Court may be on the verge of ordering the state to reduce its inmate population, now nearly 150,000, by perhaps 40,000 on the grounds that overcrowding is causing unconstitutional health problems.
The state appealed an order of a three-judge panel to that effect. This week, the case was argued before the Supreme Court. It was evident from the justices' questions that the court's four liberal members were inclined to uphold the order while its four conservatives were disinclined, leaving – as often occurs – Anthony Kennedy as the swing vote.
Kennedy hails from Sacramento, was an aide to former Gov. Ronald Reagan before beginning his judicial career and therefore has a unique knowledge of the state's complex political and cultural climate.
Kennedy indicated that he leans toward upholding the order, saying, "At some point, the court (in California) has to say, 'You have been given enough time. The constitutional violation still exists. It's now time for a remedy.' That's what it did, and that seems to me a perfectly reasonable decision."
But he also implied that he might support some remedy short of reducing the prison population to 137 percent of design capacity, as the appellate court panel ordered.
For the record, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his successor, Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown, oppose the reduction order, saying it infringes on the state's right to operate its prison system as it sees fit. It also would be fair to say that in the Capitol – and in the state as a whole, for that matter – the health of prison inmates is not a high priority.
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