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U.S. Supreme Court

Lawyer Defending Calif. Prisons Takes a Liberal ‘Pummeling’ in Supreme Court

Posted Dec 1, 2010 9:51 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Justice Sonia Sotomayor was among the justices who took an aggressive posture toward California’s prison overcrowding in spirited oral arguments on Tuesday.

California’s lawyer, Supreme Court litigator Carter Phillips, took a liberal “pummeling,” SCOTUSblog reports, as he argued against a court ordered cap on the state prison population that could result in the release of up to 45,000 inmates over two years.

The most aggressive questioner was Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who told Phillips to “slow down from the rhetoric” and explain how California would fix poor prison conditions caused by overcrowding, the Washington Post reports.

"When are you going to avoid the needless deaths that were reported in this record?" Sotomayor asked. "When are you going to avoid or get around people sitting in their feces for days in a dazed state? When are you going to get to a point where you are going to deliver care that is going to be adequate?"

SCOTUSblog says the arguments “at times came close to being rowdy” as justices raised their voices and interrupted each other, spurring occasional gentle attempts to referee by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy may cast the deciding vote in the case. Based on his comments in oral arguments, SCOTUSblog says, it appears he would not overturn the release order in its entirety, but he might support paring down the number released. He often suggested the number should be trimmed by about 7.5 percent, which would mean the release of about 24,000 inmates.

Even that number appeared too high for Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., SCOTUSblog says. He “grew visibly agitated at the prospect of thousands of dangerous inmates roaming the streets of California and starting a new crime wave,” according to the blog account.

The case is Schwarzenegger v. Plata. An ABA amicus brief filed in the case says the lower court order should be affirmed because it appropriately gave California prison officials the discretion to determine how to reduce prison population.

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