By James Oliphant
May 23, 2011, 7:31 a.m.
Reporting from Washington—
The Supreme Court, in a narrow 5-4 decision, has an upheld an injunction by a three-judge panel ordering California to release about 46,000 inmates — more than one-fourth the state prison population — over the next two years to relieve overcrowding.
The decision was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and backed by the court’s liberal bloc. At issue was whether federal judges had the power to order the release of state prisoners as a necessary means of curing a constitutional violation.
A special panel of three judges ruled in 2009 that inmates in the state’s 33 prisons were being denied adequate medical care as required by the Constitution. Because overcrowding was the “primary cause,” they ordered the state to cap its prison population at 137% of capacity.
The court said the state’s prisons had “short of minimum constitutional requirements” and “needless suffering and death” have resulted.
Kennedy noted, however, that the state had begun to reduce overcrowding and said officials deserve time to make changes. The dissenters, led by Justice Antonin Scalia, called the decision “staggering” and “absurd.” It “takes the federal courts wildly beyond their institutional capacity,” he wrote.