Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—February 9

(File photo: Stephen Lam/Reuters)

2009—Three decades later, President Carter’s sorry judicial legacy lives on. A three-judge district court consisting of three Carter appointees—Ninth Circuit judge Stephen Reinhardt and senior district judges Lawrence K. Karlton and Thelton E. Henderson—issues a “tentative ruling” that finds that overcrowding in California’s prisons is the “primary cause” of the state’s “inability to provide constitutionally adequate medical care and mental health care to its prisoners” and that would require California’s prisons to reduce their inmate populations by as many as 57,000 prisoners. The trio asserts that the release can “be achieved without an adverse effect on public safety.”

Even California attorney general Jerry Brown, usually an ardent supporter of liberal judicial lawlessness, condemns the ruling as “a blunt instrument that does not recognize the imperatives of public safety, nor the challenges of incarcerating criminals, many of whom are deeply disturbed.”

In May 2011, by a 5-4 vote (in Brown v. Plata), the Supreme Court will affirm the district court’s judgment.

In the aftermath of the Court’s ruling, the district court will repeatedly be forced to extend its deadline for compliance with its ruling. Only in March 2016—nearly five years after the Court’s ruling—will the district court determine that California is in compliance. Even then, the district court will retain control over the matter and require California to submit monthly reports.

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