Court-Appointed Expert Got Too Much Power

     (CN) – California’s improvement of conditions for disabled prisoners should not be measured by a court-appointed technical expert, the 9th Circuit ruled Friday.
     The 26-page opinion vacates part of an injunction in a decades-long case alleging that California has repeatedly ignored the needs and rights of disabled persons behind bars.
     A court-ordered remedial plan approved in 2001 established California’s obligations to such prisoners under federal law. Allegations of the state’s failure to comply have prompted modifications twice.
     The most recent change, in 2012, established new procedures for investigating and recording alleged violations of court orders and the inmates’ federal rights, and it sought to enforce disciplinary actions and resolve disputes among the parties.
     A three-judge appellate panel rejected most of California’s challenges to the modified injunction on Friday, but did find its terms unprecedented and improper in one respect.
     That newly invalidated section empowered the court-appointed technical expert in the case to resolve disputes and decide whether the state has complied with the remedial plan, without further court review.
     Such “Rule 706” experts usually act only as advisers in cases with complex scientific and technical issues, the court found. The power afforded the expert in this case far exceeds what a “non-judicial officer” is typically given, the court found.
     “We have never approved a Rule 706 expert to act in an adjudicative capacity with such finality as prescribed in Sections D.2 and D.3 of the Modified Injunction,” Judge A. Wallace Tashima wrote for a three-member panel. “While we have approved the appointment of non-judicial officers to make recommendations and resolve disputes ancillary to complex litigation, those appointments specifically limited the expert to making recommendations subject to review by the district court.”
     The panel rejected all of the state’s other arguments against the modified injunction, including that its terms are overly intrusive and thus violated the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).
     Noting that the “the core PLRA inquiry is ‘whether the same vindication of federal rights could have been achieved with less involvement by the court in directing the details of defendants’ operations,'” the panel found the state’s record spoke for itself.
     “The state, through its conduct over the past twenty years, has proven that the same vindication of federal rights cannot be achieved with less involvement by the district court,” the ruling states. “The state has failed to suggest – let alone implement – any viable means to ensure accountability and protect the plaintiff class that is narrower or less intrusive than the Modified Injunction, despite ample time and opportunity to do so.”

%d bloggers like this: