A Muddled Opinion from the Supreme Court

Published June 2, 2011

A Muddled Opinion from the Supreme Court

By Maureen Martin

Three hots and a cot aren’t good enough for jailbirds anymore, or at least not the ones in California prisons, according to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court ruled in a 5–4, widely publicized, party-line decision Monday that California’s prisons are so overcrowded, about 46,000 of the 156,000 felons currently incarcerated in them must be released early, within the next two years. Overlooked in commentary about the decision, though, is that the Court left a lot of wiggle room for California. The state can devise less-radical measures to reduce prison population, such as building new prisons or transferring prisoners to county jails. Or it can produce evidence the population already has been reduced more than acknowledged in court due to an evidence cutoff. And it gave the state hope the courts could give it a longer time to comply.

Huh? The more one reads this decision, the clearer it becomes that the majority’s legal smarts were overcome by its activist inclinations to right wrongs.

The case concerns two lawsuits pending in lower California courts for many years, both class actions alleging the California prison system violates the prohibition of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution against cruel and unusual punishment. One case involves a class of prisoners with serious mental conditions. The other involves a class of prisoners with serious medical conditions. Both suits allege treatment for such persons is shockingly inadequate. But this Court opinion resolves very little when read closely.

Class-action litigation is supposed to be reserved for cases involving certain plaintiffs eventually identified individually according to shared factual circumstances. In a recent Supreme Court case, AT&T v. Concepcion, for example, the proposed class consisted of all persons who signed a cell phone contract with AT&T containing a clause restricting arbitration. Not so here.

Overcrowding means not all prisoners receive the mental health treatments and medical health services they require. Logically, then, the class should consist of all the prisoners who needed treatment of one kind or the other but didn’t get it. Certainly, such inmates would have individual causes of action against California that could be aggregated in a class-action case.

But here, the individuals are not identified, which, the Court ruled, is not a problem. So what prisoners constitute the class here? There isn’t one specified–evidently, it’s the entire California prison system and everyone who’s in it now. What about future inmates? What about past inmates? Who knows? It doesn’t matter, according to the majority opinion.

As Justice Antonin Scalia said in his dissent, one way to look at the class issue framed by the majority is that one becomes a class member “merely by virtue of being a patient in a poorly-run prison system.” That inmate has an Eighth Amendment claim even if he cannot show any mistreatment personally. “Preposterous,” Scalia calls it, rightly so.

There would be a certain symmetry, Scalia notes, if the released prisoners were the ones who didn’t receive needed medical or mental-health treatment, but that is not what the majority ruled. Many of those released, Scalia wrote, “will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.”

The prisoners to be released, the majority wrote, are those identified by California as less likely to be repeat offenders. But the majority, having ordered this to take place, then hedges its bet. Other remedies may work, it says. Maybe the state should have more time. Maybe overcrowding isn’t the only reason for lack of treatment–maybe “a lack of political will” and administrative errors, among other things, are to blame.

The problems caused by overcrowding in California prisons have been around for years. The two overcrowding cases reviewed by the Court this week have been around for years. California has been trying its best to wiggle out of resolving them for years. It is clear California needs to address them. This decision doesn’t help.

Maureen Martin, J.D. ([email protected]) is senior fellow for legal affairs at The Heartland Institute.