(by Jess Bravin, The Wall Street Journal, WSJ.com) WASHINGTON – A divided Supreme Court on Monday ordered California to reduce prison overcrowding, a decision that could force the release of tens of thousands of inmates.

The court split along its ideological divide, with four liberals joining Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion finding the drastic remedy was needed to address “serious constitutional violations.” The majority upheld a special three-judge district court that has been overseeing California prison litigation for years.

Passions ran high on both sides of the 5-4 decision. Justice Kennedy attached photographs of jam-packed prisons to his opinion, in which he cited the need for action to prevent “needless suffering and death.”

Dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia said courts were acting beyond their proper powers. He called the district-court order “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.”

The court weighed two related suits, one of which dates to 1990. The suits alleged that California prisons were denying inmates the minimally required level of treatment for serious medical and mental-health conditions. The district court found that none of the state’s efforts to cure the problems were sufficient, owing to severe overcrowding that has seen California penitentiaries swell to nearly double their intended capacity of 80,000.

The state acknowledged that its prison mental-health care was so poor it violated the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.” But it called the district-court order premature and said it should be given more time to try alternative ways of fixing the problems.

Although California has toughened its sentences with such laws as “three strikes and you’re out,” it hasn’t added prison cells to meet the growing number of convicts.

When the district court ordered the state to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of its designed capacity-a decision that would require the release of tens of thousands of prisoners–California appealed to the Supreme Court.

Justice Kennedy wrote that the state was free to ask the district court to modify the prisoner-release order should conditions improve. But meanwhile, “this extensive and ongoing constitutional violation requires a remedy, and a remedy will not be achieved without a reduction in overcrowding,” he wrote. “The state shall implement the order without delay.”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the majority. Justice Clarence Thomas joined Justice Scalia’s dissent, while Justice Samuel Alito wrote a separate dissent that was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts.

“I fear that today’s decision, like prior prisoner release orders, will lead to a grim roster of victims. I hope that I am wrong. In a few years, we will see,” wrote Justice Alito.

Liberal justices had alluded to the reports of prisoner suffering at oral arguments in the case late last year.

“When are you going to avoid the needless deaths that were reported in this record?” asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor at the arguments…

The conservative justices said that if such problems existed, the remedy should be more narrowly tailored. The lower court erred, said Justice Alito, “in holding that no remedy short of a massive prisoner release can bring the California system into compliance with the Eighth Amendment.”

Copyright 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted here for educational purposes only. Visit the website at wsj.com.


1. What ruling did the Supreme Court make on the case regarding overcrowding in California prisons?

2. a) List the justices who wrote or joined the majority opinion.
b) List the justices who wrote or joined dissenting opinions.

3. For what reason did Justice Antonin Scalia oppose the lower court’s ruling?

4. a) What tough law did California pass that probably contributed to overcrowding in the prisons?
b) What action has California thus far not taken to ease overcrowding in the prisons?

5. Read the “Background” below the questions.
a) What do you think about Justice Kennedy’s belief that the way to reduce overcrowding and end the violation of prisoners’ 8th Amendment rights is to force the state to release tens of thousands of prisoners?
b) What do you think about Justice Scalia’s statement that the courts were acting beyond their powers, and about his belief that another solution can be found for the overcrowding problem in place of a massive prison release, saying “terrible things are sure to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order”?
c) What do you think should be done about the overcrowding in California’s prisons?


On the types of cases the Supreme Court hears:
Approximately 7,500 cases are sent to the Supreme Court each year. Out of these, only 80 to 100 are actually heard by the Supreme Court. When a case comes to the Supreme Court, several things happen. First, the Justices get together to decide if a case is worthy of being brought before the Court. In other words, does the case really involve Constitutional or federal law? Secondly, a Supreme Court ruling can affect the outcome of hundreds or even thousands of cases in lower courts around the country. Therefore, the Court tries to use this enormous power only when a case presents a pressing constitutional issue. … (from bensguide.gpo.gov)

On Brown v. Platt:

THE MAJORITY OPINION, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, which was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan:

  • “After years of litigation, it became apparent that a remedy for the constitutional violations would not be effective [without] a reduction in the prison system population,” Kennedy wrote in an opinion joined by the court’s more liberal members.
  • Critics of California’s prison system contend the cells are so overrun with inmates that proper care has been obliterated.
  • Justice Kennedy cites examples of prisoners with mental or physical health needs having to wait months for inadequate care.  [He cited the fact that some prisoners] died while seeking medical attention that was seemingly delayed because of the backlog of cases.
  • “If a prison deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, the courts have a responsibility to remedy the resulting Eighth Amendment violation,” Kennedy declared noting the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
  • While Kennedy recognized the “grave concern” of releasing prisoners in large numbers he nonetheless supported the premise that the state’s prisons have simply become too overcrowded.
  • “Absent compliance through new construction, out-of-state transfers, or other means … the state will be required to release some number of prisoners before their full sentences have been served.”

THE DISSENTING OPINION, in which Justice Clarence Thomeas joined Justice Scalia’s dissent, while Justice Samuel Alito wrote a separate dissent that was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts.

  • Justice Scalia, who read part of his dissent from the bench, expressed concern that the ruling upholds the idea that judges can institute their policy preferences in place of elected lawmakers and that the reach of the decision is simply too broad.
  • “It is also worth noting the peculiarity that the vast majority of inmates most generously rewarded by the release order — the 46,000 whose incarceration will be ended — do not form part of any aggrieved class even under the Court’s expansive notion of constitutional violation,” Scalia wrote in dissent. “Most of them will not be prisoners with medical conditions or severe mental illness; and many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.”
  • Chief Justice John Roberts joined a separate dissent written by Justice Samuel Alito that also questioned the wisdom of giving federal judges the authority to run state penal systems. [They said the ruling conflicted with a federal law intended to limit the power of federal judges to order a release of prisoners.] Their dissent also faulted the majority for not taking into greater consideration the recent progress of state officials to improve prison conditions and the concerns about public safety. (from foxnews.com)


Visit the Supreme Court website for a link to the California prison decision “Brown vs. Plata” at supremecourt.gov.

Read general information about the Supreme Court at bensguide.gpo.gov

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