“Today the court affirms what is perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.” So began Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s enraged dissent.
Release up to 46,000 convicted felons, the court recently ordered the state of California. In a 5-4 decision, the court gave California two years to reduce its prison “overcrowding” — or set tens of thousands free. The ACLU, which brought the suit, successfully argued that poor prison conditions violated the prisoners’ rights as a class, not individually, thus the threat of mass premature release.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his majority opinion, agreed with the lower court, which said that overcrowding and an undermanned medical staff mean “an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six to seven days.” California houses 143,000 inmates in 33 adult prisons designed for 80,000. The prison conditions, including under-treatment for the mentally ill, wrote Kennedy, “(fall) short of minimum constitutional requirements.”
Where to start with this outrageous decision?
First, elections matter. A Republican president would have seated neither Sonia Sotomayor nor Elena Kagan, who together comprised two-fifths of the majority. President Barack I-look-for-justices-with-empathy Obama filled two liberal vacancies with two liberal justices. Given that the major Republican presidential candidates promised to seat justices in the mold of Chief Justice John Roberts or Justice Sam Alito, this decision would have gone 6-3 the other way.