Supreme Court Upholds Prisoner Release Injunction

California's prisons are obscenely overcrowded, housing a population about double the intended capacity, and the state has not adequately responded to court orders demanding that it remedy the problem. In response to this, a three-judge panel ruled that California had to cut its prison population substantially in order to prevent constitutional standards. The facts were grim enough to stir the sporadic conscience of Anthony Kennedy, who wrote a 5-4 opinion upholding the order.

Not surprisingly, this decision provoked two dissents -- a hysterical one ("Today, quite to the contrary, the Court disregards stringently drawn provisions of the governing statute, and traditional constitutional limitations upon the power of a federal judge, in order to uphold the absurd") by Scalia (joined by Thomas) and a more measured one that (as usual) reached the same fundamental bottom line by Alito (joined by Roberts.) The key premise of both dissents is that the judiciary is incapable of supervising state prison systems and ordering proper remedies. But this is both empirically wrong and makes little sense in theory. The rights of prisoners -- who have essentially no representation in the political process -- are uniquely* well-suited* to judicial intervention. This is the type of case where judicial review is particularly justifiable.

This isn't to say that this result is ideal. But the courts are dealing with the fact that -- as a result of Republican intransigence and horrible institutional design -- California wants to incarcerate huge numbers of people but doesn't want to spend the money (and hence raise the taxes) that would be required to do so. Housing people in inhumane (and unconstitutional) conditions is not an acceptable means of dealing with this political failure, and the courts are well within their bounds to order a remedy.