Saturday, September 19, 2009

Contempt or Cooperation?

Given the State's population reduction plan, which falls short of the Plata/Coleman order, the question becomes: What can the court do, and what should it do?

I find the latter question much more interesting than the former. We know that courts have the authority to send one to prison for contempt, sometimes not as reasonably as one would hope. But I don't see how that would be helpful in any way in this situation. But what about monetary penalties? Or asking for adjustments to the order?

There are various complicating factors here. On one hand, as Judge Karlton explained in his luncheon address at our conference last March, this is the last in a long series of problematic interactions between the state and federal courts regarding corrections and constitutional rights. Faithful followers of the crisis will recall how close the court was to hold Governor Schwarzenegger in contempt for not providing the receiver with funds to improve health care.

On the other hand, even the Plata/Coleman decision acknowledged that, while the state was late to respond to court requirements in the Coleman case, state officials eventually did cooperate with the special masters. Given the dramatic implications of federal intervention in prison population management, the court would prefer cooperation and, possibly, an incremental improvement of the proposed plan, to an adversarial step that will alienate the state even further.

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