Some of the coverage of this conflict sadly has displayed a measure of "false equivalence." Gov. Brown's position has been juxtaposed with the judicial orders as though the matter were still in legal doubt. Don't be fooled by this coverage. There is no such dispute. There is what the Supreme Court and the lower courts have ordered to be done on behalf of the inmates. There is the failure and refusal of California to get it done. There is whining from state officials. And there is now the whiff of contempt sanctions against the governor and his tribunes.
The procedural history of this current generation of California prison cases, well into their second decade of litigation, is terribly complicated. The core of the story is not. In August 2009, a three-judge federal panel, after an exhaustive review of the evidence, concluded that to comply with constitutional standards California would need to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of its prisons' design capacities within two years. There were simply too many inmates, the judges found, and too few beds, medical staff and other resources.
California appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court. In May 2011, in a decision authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, a native Californian, the Court broadly upheld the 2009 ruling. There was little ambiguity from the Court's majority: the state had until June 2013 to comply. In October 2011, California began to empty its prisons. "Thousands of inmates either serving prison terms or parole revocation terms for 'non-serious, non-violent and non-registerable sex crimes' were shifted to county jails," the judicial panelists noted.
But then, California's progress stopped well short of the 137.5 percent benchmark the courts had ordered. Why? Because of political pressure generated by the shifting of the inmates from state to county facilities. First, state lawyers asked the judges to raise the benchmark. Then, they sought a delay until December 2013 to comply with the order. Then, California's lawyers argued that prison officials could comply with their obligations even if they couldn't meet the benchmark.
Throughout 2012, California officials, attorneys for the inmates, and the federal judges fussed over the state's failure to comply with the court orders. Over and over, the judicial panel gave state officials time and opportunities to fix the problem. Over and over, the prisoners' lawyers complained about the pace of the progress. Over and over, California refused to commit to a plan that would bring the prisons into compliance by June 2013, or even December 2013. And then, in early January of this year, the state simply gave up trying.
On January 8, 2013, Gov. Brown announced that as of July 2013 he would no longer use whatever "emergency powers" he has as chief executive to comply with the order. He announced that "prison crowding no longer poses safety risks to prison staff or inmates, nor does it inhibit the delivery of timely and effective health care services to inmates." California's governor, in effect, unilaterally declared an end to his state's constitutional obligation to end the prison emergency. One day earlier, his lawyers had quietly filed motions to terminate federal judicial oversight over state prisons.