World & Nation

Justice Scalia voices uncommon dissent in California prison ruling

WASHINGTON -- Not all the justices on the U.S. Supreme Court were in agreement with the decision Friday that will force California to remove more than 9,000 inmates from its overcrowded prisons by the end of the year.

Though the court’s ideological differences are well known, it is unusual for the justices to write a dissent on procedural matters such as California’s request for a stay of an order from a panel of federal judges.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy initially received the petition as the justice who oversees the 9th Circuit. But Kennedy referred Gov. Jerry Brown’s request for a stay to the entire high court, and it ultimately rejected it 6-3. Justice Antonin Scalia penned a sharply worded dissent, which Justice Clarence Thomas also signed.

Scalia wrote that he does not believe the federal courts have the authority to order California to remove thousands of inmates from its prison system.


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“California must now release upon the public nearly 10,000 inmates convicted of serious crimes -- about 1,000 for every city larger than Santa Ana,” he wrote. The order, he wrote, goes “beyond the power of the courts.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. also joined the minority, but he did not sign the written dissent.

Attorneys for inmates are hopeful that Friday’s high court order signals that the state has run out of options for avoiding the prison population caps. They had expected Kennedy to make the ruling himself. But instead, the entire court weighed in after state attorneys filed extensive legal briefs seeking the stay.


“I think the governor has played this out now,” said Michael Bien, the lead lawyer in one of two federal lawsuits that triggered the prison release order.

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