Governor Jerry Brown lost his latest appeal of the federal court order requiring him to reduce the prison population by the end of the year. But Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia handed him a victory in defeat.
The U.S. Supreme Court voted 6-3 to uphold the federal order last week. One of the dissenters was Scalia, who in a three-page dissent gave Brown all the cover he’ll need if one or more of the people released end up committing more crimes.
Scalia wrote bluntly that California under the governor had done as it was required to do by a previous U.S. Supreme Court decision: reduce the prison population. “The State… provided evidence that it has made meaningful progress and that population reductions to the level required by the injunction are unnecessary,” Scalia wrote.
Scalia also fingered a specific culprit: his own colleagues in the federal courts and on the U.S. Supreme Court itself, whose decisions in the case were “defying all sound conception of the proper role of judges.”
Scalia accused his U.S. Supreme Court colleagues of handling the case in a way to deflect responsibility onto the state, “making it clear for all to see, that if the terrible things were to happen as a consequence of this outrageous order do happen, they will be none of this Court’s responsibility.”
Sarcastically, the justice said, “So also today, it is not our fault that California must now release upon the public nearly 10,000 inmates convicted of serious crimes – about 1,000 for every city larger than Santa Ana – three-quarters of whom are moderate (57 percent) or high (74 percent) recidivism risks.”
If Brown is criticized over the prisons and the possible human consequences of releases, all he’ll have to do is quote Scalia. And that should be a powerful antidote to any Republican challenger who would dare make the prisons and these forced releases an issue.
So there you have it: prison reform and court fights make strange bedfellows. Antonin Scalia as character witness for Jerry Brown.
Joe Mathews is Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It.
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