Judge’s Decision in California Prisons Case Could Increase State’s Budget Woes

Published January 1, 2009

California’s budget woes may soon get worse because of a federal judge’s ruling in a lawsuit regarding the state’s prisons. The decision came while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and California Democrats were already casting about for a fix for the state’s deficit, estimated by the governor at $11.2 billion and climbing as the economy slows.

A lawsuit in which the presiding federal judge is trying to force the state to spend at least $8 billion on prison inmate health care could make the situation much worse.

In September, the governor signed a $103.4 billion budget. His administration declared the budget balanced, but many analysts believed it included a deficit of more than $10 billion. As state revenue streams have slowed, that figure has been climbing, prompting the governor to call lawmakers into special session on November 7.

The special session came one month after Schwarzenegger asked for a federal bailout to ease California through a short-term cash crunch but instead eventually secured a $7 billion loan in the private market. The state must repay that money with interest.

Contempt of Court Threat

Meanwhile, a federal district judge scolded state officials for not agreeing to spend more than $8 billion to fund construction of seven prison inmate health care centers and has threatened to hold the governor and the state controller in contempt if they do not submit the money to the court.

The problem with the federal court ruling is “you can’t get blood out of a turnip,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. While acknowledging there is “no doubt” the California prison system “has been grossly mismanaged” and the Department of Corrections has demonstrated “a lot of incompetence,” he pointed out, “We are out of money in California.”

The federal case began years ago as a class-action suit on behalf of prison inmates alleged to be suffering from lack of adequate health care. In 2005, Judge Thelton Henderson, a former civil rights lawyer, ruled the lack of health care was real and amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

About one inmate a week died from poor health care, Henderson found.

Constitutionality Questions

The judge later appointed J. Clark Kelso as the court’s “receiver.” Kelso is to oversee the construction of 10,000 beds in free-standing health care facilities to accommodate mentally and physically ill prison inmates, an $8 billion plan approved by the judge.

Kelso filed another court case in August 2008 to force the state to pay the money, after the California legislature failed to approve a bond issue to fund the construction projects. Kelso has asked the judge to hold the governor and controller in contempt, and the judge is seriously considering that request.

Particularly irksome to the judge is the position of Attorney General Jerry Brown (D), who believes the medical facilities ordered by the judge go beyond constitutional requirements.

“With the respect to [sic] the sovereignty of California,” Brown told the Stockton Record, “We want to find a way to provide decent health care for prisoners and to do so at the constitutional minimum—and not beyond.”

Government-Financed Sex Changes

Coupal agrees some California spending on medical care for prisoners goes well beyond the minimum necessary. The state routinely pays for sex-change operations, for example, he said. He says such spending should be curtailed.

Coupal also questioned whether a federal court has the authority to order a state to spend money. He predicts the case will eventually reach the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Judge Henderson has significantly overreached in trying to raid the California treasury,” Coupal said. “It won’t be over soon.”

In a recent study, California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA) called on the California legislature to pass reform laws curbing frivolous lawsuits by inmates. Such suits cost the state $191 million in the past six years, CALA stated in an August 2008 report.

“Given the enormity of our state’s budget crisis, taxpayers should not often be put in the position of paying millions of dollars each year to deal with these often-ridiculous lawsuits,” the authors wrote.

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

For more information …

California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse,”Citizens in Chains: The High Cost of Prisoner Lawsuits to California Taxpayers,” August 2008: http://www.cala.com/