9th Circ. Reinstates Order for Wiccan Prisoner

     PASADENA, Calif. (CN) — The Ninth Circuit on Friday found that a federal judge didn’t check whether prison officials were complying with a consent decree about an inmate’s Wiccan religion before he dismissed it.
     “We are disappointed by the district court’s insouciance in this case. The court committed numerous errors in terminating a consent decree that had been carefully crafted over the course of two decades,” Judge Alex Kozinski wrote for the majority.
     California inmate William Rouser’s case began in 1992 when he petitioned the California State Prison at Sacramento to recognize Wicca as a bona fide religion and give its followers the same rights accorded to inmates of other faiths.
     Rouser requested to possess Wiccan ritual items like candles and incense, to have access to “A Witches Bible Compleat,” to use the prison chapel for Wiccan ceremonies, and to receive the ministry of a Wiccan chaplain.
     After the prison denied his requests, Rouser filed a civil rights complaint in district court that eventually led to a comprehensive settlement agreement between the parties describing how the prisons and their staff would accommodate Rouser’s religious needs.
     After receiving complaints of violations of the agreement over the next 14 years from Rouser, a judge in the Eastern District of California granted a preliminary injunction, finding that prison officials had burdened the inmate’s religious exercise.
     The parties entered into another settlement agreement a year later, which the district court adopted as a consent decree in 2011. Under the decree, the California Department of Corrections reaffirmed the promises it made in the previous agreement and included additional privileges, such as allowing Rouser to attend weekly “esbats” and permitting him to bypass the first levels of appeal when reporting any noncompliance with the decree.
     The case was transferred to the Central District of California. Several months after the decree went into effect, Rouser filed a motion to enforce its terms, claiming that prison officials had violated the agreement in at least five ways.
     U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner found that prison officials had violated the decree by damaging a religious necklace in their custody and by dismissing Rouser’s grievances before they reached the warden. Although the district court reminded the prison to adhere to the terms of the decree, it did not order them to replace the necklace or grant any other relief.
     Klausner resolved the remainder of Rouser’s claims in the prison’s favor without an evidentiary hearing or an acknowledgment that the inmate had presented contrary evidence.
     Three months later, prison officials moved to vacate the decree on the claim that they had reached substantial compliance. A declaration by Correctional Counselor Nathan Wilcox stating that prison officials had “fully complied” with the decree discussed only some of the decree’s terms and said nothing about compliance with other terms, according to the Ninth Circuit.
     Wilcox also did not state whether prison officials had remedied the two violations the court found just months earlier.
     Klausner refused to grant Rouser an evidentiary hearing and instead issued a three-page minute order in March 2013 dismissing the decree without a hearing or oral argument. Klausner found that prison officials had “demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that they have substantially complied with the terms of the settlement agreement.”
     A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit took Klausner to task Friday for his out-of-hand dismissal of the decades-old case.
     “Nowhere in [the district court’s] terse minute order did it mention the defendants’ record of compliance — either with the 2011 decree or its predecessor — ‘which over the course of the litigation has been far from exemplary.’ Nor did it analyze whether the purposes of the 2011 decree had been ‘adequately served’ by defendants,” Judge Kozinski wrote.
     Courts cannot dismiss a consent decree unless it is first determined that the parties have substantially complied with every one of the decree’s provisions. In this case, the evidence does not support a finding that prison officials were in compliance, the panel ruled.
     “In light of the court’s own findings, only four months earlier, that defendants had failed to comply with material aspects of the decree, and with no proof that those failures had been remedied, termination of the decree was clearly an abuse of discretion,” Kozinski said.
     Furthermore, nothing in the record suggests that the prison fulfilled its obligation to make copies of a master schedule or religious services that included the time and location of Wiccan events, the panel pointed out.
     “And what of Rouser’s ability to access his Wiccan bible in administrative segregation? Or his right to be released from confinement in time to attend full Wiccan services? We don’t know, because defendants presented no evidence and the district court made no finding as to these terms of the 2011 decree,” Kozinski wrote.
     Klausner also overlooked Rouser’s dispute to the prison officials’ compliance claims, including his claim that he was not allowed to use candles and he was only allowed one ritual outdoors, the Ninth Circuit found.
     “If true, Rouser’s allegations would have documented material noncompliance with the terms of the decree and thus precluded any finding of substantial compliance,” Kozinski wrote. “Accordingly, the district court should have — but didn’t — conduct a hearing before deciding material factual disputes related to defendants’ compliance with the decree.”
     The panel reinstated the consent decree and remanded the case to the lower court for further proceedings.
     U.S. District Court Judge James Singleton, sitting by designation, joined Kozinski in the majority.
     In a dissenting opinion, Judge Consuelo Callahan said that the majority’s reversal “improperly denies the heightened deference due a trial court’s finding that a consent decree aimed at institutional reform has served its purpose, is at odds with the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), and is undermined by a record showing compliance that is substantial.”
     In “rattling off supposed errors like a gatling gun,” the majority “commits larger legal errors related to the standards applicable to the termination of consent decrees governing state prisons,” Callahan wrote.
     Because Rouser did not contest the prison officials’ sworn declaration stating that they had fully complied with the decree, the district court could take as true that they had complied with the decree except as to those provisions disputed by Rouser, she said.
     “Defendants were not required to list out and address every line of the consent decree separately, and the majority errs by faulting the district court for not holding defendants to such a standard,” Callahan said.
     The dissenting judge said the district court did not err in finding that Rouser’s allegations of a handful of instances in which prison officials did not comply did not undermine the showing of substantial compliance.
     “While strictly observing any faith, particularly one involving so many rituals, is undoubtedly difficult for an inmate, whose rights are not coextensive with those of the general public, Rouser’s ability to observe Wicca is greatly improved. It is time for this 23-year-old case to be dismissed,” Callahan wrote.

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