The Sacramento Bee’s account described the U.S. Supreme Court’s order as “terse,” and having read the Court’s order I can understand why.
“The application for stay presented to Justice Kennedy and by him referred to the Court is denied. In denying the stay, the Court takes note of the fact that the three-judge district court has indicated that its final order will not be implemented until this Court has had the opportunity to review the district court's decree.” Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, No. 09A234, 9/11/09.
Behind this banal order, an ugly human tragedy has been unfolding for years. California was once the Golden State, to which − paraphrasing Paul Simon on Joe DiMaggio − the restless eyes of the nation turned, In recent years, however, it has become a state that has inmates triple-bunked in gymnasiums, hallways and other unlikely places, with their medical records in chaos, resulting in a sad succession of suicides and preventable illnesses over the past decade − all fully documented in evidence admitted in federal court.
When inmate groups proved their case in a grueling legal ground game, it became clear that things had to change. Finally, on August 4, a special 3-judge district court imposed a population cap. California’s 33 prisons hold more than more than 148,000 inmates today, in a system designed for 80,000. The cap is intended to bring the population to 110,000 within two years, or 137.5 percent of design capacity.
Even with this constitutionally mandated cap being imposed by the courts, the California General Assembly failed yet again to pass a bill to address the endemic crowding problems in any realistic way. A proposal to allow lower-risk, seriously ill or elderly prisoners to serve the last 12 months of their sentences under house arrest with electronic monitoring was defeated, as were many others. The General Assembly adjourned having done little more than rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, with a bill to cut the prison population by 7,500 inmates over two years – a fraction of the 38,000 needed to pass constitutional muster.
In its two-sentence order on September 11, the Supreme Court turned down the state’s attempt to further delay fixing the problems. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has until September 18 to submit a prison population reduction plan to the court that imposed the cap. With or without the governor’s help, the court will act, with the U.S. Supreme Court likely to decide the ultimate constitutionality of the federal intervention into California’s prison system.
As the justices are researching their decision, one wonders whether any of their clerks will have Kate Wolf’s song “Here in California” loaded on an I-pod:
“There's an old familiar story
An old familiar rhyme
To everything there is a season
To every purpose there's a time
A time to love and come together
A time when love longs for air
A time for questions we can't answer
Though we ask them just the same
Here in California fruit hangs heavy on the vines
There's no gold I thought I'd warn you
And the hills turn brown in the summertime.”
When it comes to California’s prisons, it’s passed the time for questions the state can’t answer. With its own state government having failed to do so, the Supreme Court is posed to provide an answer for them.