The U.S. Supreme Court turned down a states' rights appeal from California Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday, leaving in place a judge's order that requires state officials to monitor each of about 2,000 disabled prisoners who are held in county jails.
Without comment, the justices refused to hear Brown's complaint that the order "violates fundamental federalism principles" by holding the state liable for lapses by local officials.
The court's dismissal is the latest setback for California's top officials in a long-running battle with federal judges over the management of the state's prisons.
Three years ago, the high court upheld judges who said the state's prisons were so badly overcrowded that they could not provide decent healthcare for inmates who had medical or mental problems. The only remedy, the court agreed, was to reduce the number of state prisoners.
In response, Brown helped engineer a "realignment" that shifted thousands of low-level offenders and parole violators to county jails. In 2012, the Legislature decreed that these inmates were in the "sole legal custody" of county officials.
But last year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state retained the legal duty to make sure that prisoners who have a disability are given the "reasonable accommodations" required under the Americans With Disabilities Act, even if they are held in a county jail.
"These accommodations include the basic necessities of life for disabled prisoners and parolees, such as wheelchairs, sign-language interpreters, accessible beds and toilets and tapping canes for the blind," said Judge Stephen Reinhardt for the 9th Circuit. "The state is not absolved of all of its responsibility for ADA obligations as to the parolees" just because they are now held in county jails, he wrote.
The appeals court upheld a 43-page order by U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken which said state officials must check with each parole violator who is sent to a county jail and has a disability. She said the state must see to it that the inmate receives the accommodations required under the law.
Brown and Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris appealed to the Supreme Court in March and asked for a review of the 9th Circuit's decision. It "sets a dangerous and sweeping precedent that effectively nullifies the states' 10th Amendment right to delegate powers to local governments," they said. If left standing, it would leave the state "liable for alleged ADA violations in the county jails," they argued.
Late last year, the state said about 26,000 parolees were being held in 200 jails throughout the state, and 1,889 of them had a disability. This number is constantly changing, they said.
In reply to the appeal, lawyers for the prisoners who sued the state said Brown and Harris had exaggerated the impact of the judge's order. "At its core, the injunction merely requires the state to provide disability notifications, collect disability data and issue reports to the counties," they told the court.