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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

SCOTUS Springs California Inmates

Federalism continues to shape key aspects of everyday life. In Brown v. Plata, the US Supreme Court has ordered California to release thousands of prisoners.

In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote:
As a consequence of their own actions, prisoners may bedeprived of rights that are fundamental to liberty. Yet the law and the Constitution demand recognition of certain other rights. Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignityanimates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. “‘The basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man.’” Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U. S. 304, 311 (2002) (quot-ing Trop v. Dulles, 356 U. S. 86, 100 (1958) (plurality opinion)).To incarcerate, society takes from prisoners the means to provide for their own needs. Prisoners are dependenton the State for food, clothing, and necessary medical care. A prison’s failure to provide sustenance for inmates “may actually produce physical ‘torture or a lingering death.’” Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U. S. 97, 103 (1976) (quoting In re Kemmler, 136 U. S. 436, 447 (1890)); see generally A.Elsner, Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America’s Prisons(2004). Just as a prisoner may starve if not fed, he or shemay suffer or die if not provided adequate medical care. A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, includ-ing adequate medical care, is incompatible with the con-cept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.
Justice Scalia disagrees:
Today the Court affirms what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our Nation’s history: anorder requiring California to release the staggering num-ber of 46,000 convicted criminals.

There comes before us, now and then, a case whose proper outcome is so clearly indicated by tradition and common sense, that its decision ought to shape the law, rather than vice versa. One would think that, before allowing the decree of a federal district court to release 46,000 convicted felons, this Court would bend every effort to read the law in such a way as to avoid that outrageousresult. Today, quite to the contrary, the Court disregardsstringently drawn provisions of the governing statute, and traditional constitutional limitations upon the power of a federal judge, in order to uphold the absurd.

The proceedings that led to this result were a judicial travesty. I dissent because the institutional reform the District Court has undertaken violates the terms of the gov-erning statute, ignores bedrock limitations on the power of Article III judges, and takes federal courts wildly beyond their institutional capacity.