Procedural Slap Against CA in Prison-Reform Case

     (CN) - California must identify the experts reviewing its prison health care system before it moves to end a long-running lawsuit, the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday.
     The ruling is another procedural step in the long, winding road of prison-reform litigation in California, which faced orders to release 10,000 inmates after admonishments from the 9th Circuit and the Supreme Court.
     California prisons have been operating under a receivership since 2006, after the state failed to comply with court orders issued in Plata v. Brown to improve health care for prisoners with serious medical conditions. Filed in 2001, the case is one of two related civil actions over conditions in the state's prisons.
     Under the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), California could have filed to terminate the orders after two years, triggering an automatic stay if the district court failed to rule on the motion within 30 days.
     After the state moved to terminate Coleman v. Brown, a related case over mental health care in California's prisons, a three-judge panel appointed to oversee the litigation some seven years ago asked if it intended to do the same in Plata v. Brown.
     The state replied that it would do so if court-appointed experts failed to evaluate the medical care system's progress in a timely manner, possibly within a "few months."
     The plaintiffs in the case responded with an emergency motion to reopen discovery, and, citing fairness, the District Court then ordered the state to disclose its supporting witnesses and reports at least 120 days prior to filing a termination motion.
     California took the issue to the 9th Circuit, arguing that the 120-day notice requirement violated the rules set down in the PLRA.
     After first finding that it lacked jurisdiction to consider the issue unless it treated the state's appeal as a writ of mandamus, a appellate panel upheld the notice order, 2-1, on Wednesday, calling it "a sensible scheduling order."
     "The relief ordered in this case is complex and has affected thirty-three different institutions for nearly twelve years," Judge Mary Schroeder for the majority. "Providing plaintiffs with notice that the state intends to file a motion to terminate will allow both the state and plaintiffs to have an adequate record on which the district court may decide the merits of the motion. With the benefit of informed briefing from both parties, the district court will be able to make a timely ruling on a motion to terminate, as the PLRA contemplates."
     Writing in dissent, Judge Jay Bybee argued that the majority had improperly ignored the PLRA's "strict timetable.""Absent statutory interference, district courts have broad discretion in managing their cases," he wrote. "But here, the PLRA decrees that all prospective relief orders become terminable, at the latest, 2 years after their imposition. Not 2 years and 1 day, and certainly not 2 years and 120 days, as required by the district court's order