Brown v. Plata, 09-1233, May 23, 2011
Since 1990, the State of California has consistently failed to meet court-ordered benchmarks to bring its prison healthcare system within standards that do not amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Considering the trial court’s determination that California had exhausted its opportunities to remedy conditions, the bitterly divided Court (J. Kennedy writing for the majority, J. Scalia filing a dissent joined by J. Thomas, J. Alito filing a dissent joined by J. Roberts) held that that California must reduce its prison population to within 137.5% of capacity within two years (a release of around 30,000 prisoners, according to one media account).
The ruling–described by Justice Scalia as “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history”–has generated significant commentary. Ben Kerschberg in Forbes surveyed the prison conditions that prompted the Court’s unprecedented action, along with a sober look at how the ruling will play in political and social debates into the future. The Sacramento Bee examined the opinion and possible outcomes. The Los Angeles Times looked at possible methods that would bring California into compliance with the ruling. And yes, The Weed Blog weighed in with an exhortation to reduce the prison population by reforming the state’s drug laws.
In this dispute between defense contractors and the Pentagon, the contractors asserted an affirmative defense that required significant inquiry into highly classified material, causing the government to invoke the state-secrets privilege. The trial court agreed that further litigation of the affirmative defense would create a risk of disclosing important military secrets, and therefore found that the contractors’ defense was “nonjusticiable.” Justice Scalia, writing for a unanimous Court, determined that because the finding of nonjusticiability fatally impaired the contractors’ affirmative defense, the government’s underlying claim was also barred, and ordered the lower court to fashion an order that would “leave the parties to the agreement where they stood on the day they filed suit.”
Adam Liptak covered the ruling, analyzing the case within the context of other recent state-secrets cases, and nicely explaining Scalia’s distinction between this holding and the older, seemingly contradictory, US v. Reynolds. The Wired story included a neat photo of the airplane in question–the Navy’s would-be A-12 Avenger stealth fighter.
Orders of Note
Williams v. Thomas, 10-10589, May 19, 2011
The Court declined to stay the Petitioner’s execution and denied his petition for writ of certiorari. Later that day, the State of Alabama executed Williams.
Reuters has this account of the execution, along with details of Williams’ brutal crime. The case drew some attention earlier in the month when federal agents seized the drug Alabama intended to use in the execution over questions of whether or not it had been legally imported. Alabama then switched from sodium thiopental, a drug that is in short supply, to pentobarbital, more commonly used to euthanize animals.