California Blasts Judge for Delaying Prison Case

     (CN) – A judge improperly delayed California’s efforts at ending federal oversight of health care in its prison system, a lawyer for the state told the 9th Circuit.
     California Deputy Attorney General Jose Zelidon-Zepeda argued that a February order by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson created the kind of delay Congress meant to avoid when it passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) in 1996.
     Henderson had ordered California’s lawyers to disclose the names of the experts they selected to examine prison conditions before the state could seek to end a 2002 injunction establishing federal oversight of California’s prisons.
     He said inmate representatives must also be allowed to accompany the state’s chosen experts on their prison visits, and the state must hand over the experts’ reports afterward.
     The order stems from a 2001 class action in which inmate Marciano Plata claimed California violated the Eighth Amendment and the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide state prisoners with “constitutionally adequate healthcare.”
     The lawsuit was consolidated with one filed in 1990 by Ralph Coleman over substandard mental health care.
     The plaintiffs negotiated a deal with the state that resulted in a 2002 injunction requiring federal oversight of state prisons while California worked to fix the problems.
     California agreed to take remedial steps to ensure adequate health care at all 33 prison facilities, starting with seven prisons in 2003 and adding five more to the program each year through 2008.
     But after cataloging “extensive and disturbing” constitutional violations, the district court appointed a receiver in 2006 to completely take over the provision of medical care to California state prison inmates.
     In 2009 a panel of federal judges, dissatisfied with the progress the state had made, ordered California to do more to relieve overcrowding.
     California reduced the population in part by passing the Prison Realignment Act in 2011, shifting more than 20,000 inmates to county jails. But the progress has not placated the panel of district judges, who want California to release 10,000 prisoners by the end of 2013.
     The U.S. Supreme Court recently refused to issue a stay.
     Meanwhile, in early 2013, California indicated that it wanted to take back the reins. Attorneys for Plata and his co-plaintiffs asked Judge Henderson to reopen discovery in order to prepare for any motion hearings.
     They also claimed the state “hired physicians from Texas to evaluate the medical care at California prisons” and asked to accompany those consultants on their tours.
     Henderson reopened discovery but then went too far, according to the state, by setting requirements the plaintiffs had not even asked for.
     The judge additionally ordered prison officials to disclose their experts and provide expert reports “at least 120 days prior to filing any motion to terminate.”
     In doing so, Henderson exceeded the legal limits and flouted congressional intent, Zelidon-Zepeda argued in the state’s brief and in court.
     “In contravention of the PLRA, this order delays defendants’ efforts to terminate this longstanding class action, and it delays the effect of the automatic stay that follows a termination motion,” the brief states.
     Zelidon-Zepeda said Congress enacted the statute to stop federal judges from “stonewalling” and to get the federal courts out of prison litigation.
     Under the law, prison officials can file a motion to terminate an injunction after two years of federal oversight. An automatic stay that suspends the injunction kicks in 30 days after a motion is filed.
     Zelidon-Zepeda said this was Congress’s way of speeding up the courts’ decision-making, and that Henderson’s order was an end-run of the PLRA.
     “What the district court said was, despite that Congress said you can move to terminate at any point you think is appropriate after two years, you have to go through these additional hoops,” he told the 9th Circuit.
     “That was something that plaintiffs didn’t ask for and that defendants didn’t have a chance to respond to,” he said. “There was no discussion about these additional requirements. The district court issued an order and said, ‘Plaintiffs’ request to reopen discovery is granted and, oh, by the way, I’m going to go ahead and force defendants to disclose their experts and their expert reports.'”
     The prisoners’ attorney disputed that Henderson’s order changed the game.
     Kellie Knapp of the Prison Law Office in Berkeley characterized it as a scheduling order, one that was well within the judge’s authority to issue. And because it was so routine, she said, the case should not have made it to the 9th Circuit.
     “This court does not have jurisdiction over an order that merely sets a schedule for a motion defendants may never file and have not filed in these 11-plus years,” she said, adding that it was “a consummate example of a case management order that does not cause any harm or prejudice to defendants.”
     Knapp argued that Henderson’s order was a way to give the parties a fair chance to gather and analyze evidence to determine whether state prisons are still violating the Constitution.
     “The district court was faced with a complicated fact-finding procedure involving medical care for over 100,000 prisoners in 33 prisons, and extensive evidence requiring expert analysis, as well as an automatic stay of numerous remedial orders ensuring the basic components of constitutionally adequate healthcare,” she said.
     “In the face of this dilemma, the district court set a schedule that would give both parties a fair opportunity to discover and prepare their evidence, and to prevent defendants from needlessly ambushing plaintiffs with a termination motion,” she argued.
     Circuit Judge Jay Bybee asked Knapp whether she thought the limited time for discovery created by the PRLA’s 30-day automatic stay provision created a due process violation.
     “That’s correct,” Knapp said. “I think the time frame set forth is unrealistic for a complicated case like this.”
     “Is the statute unconstitutional on its face?” Bybee asked.
     “No, it’s unconstitutional as applied,” Knapp replied.
     A puzzled Bybee asked, “Now, how can it be unconstitutional as applied since you haven’t seen the state’s motion yet?” He wondered how the plaintiffs could anticipate that the content of the motion was something more than trivial.
     “It’s very difficult to make an as-applied argument when we don’t have the motion in front of us,” Bybee said.
     Knapp responded that the order was routine and not appealable: “Yes, exactly, which highlights why there shouldn’t be jurisdiction.”
     In his rebuttal, Zelidon-Zepeda said, “Ms. Knapp said this court shouldn’t care about this because this is a scheduling order. But, I submit to court that the court should care because Congress cared. Congress cared enough to say these motions to terminate are really important to us. Prison condition cases are something the courts should not be involved in and we think that courts should rule in these cases promptly and we should stay the relief if it’s not dealt with in an expeditious manner.”

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