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CA Prison Release Ruling: A Look at Scalia's Scathing Dissent

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

On Friday, SCOTUS rejected Gov. Jerry Brown's administration's bid to stall a federal court demand that the state remove another 10,000 inmates by the end of the year to resolve California's prison overcrowding crisis.

Justice Antonin Scalia's scathing dissent, which Justice Clarence Thomas also signed, is gaining quite a bit of attention.

Scalia, decried the "terrible injunction" and said the Supreme Court majority has affirmed "perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation's history."

"The court disregards stringently drawn provisions of the [Prison Litigation Reform Act], and traditional constitutional limitations upon the power of a federal judge, in order to uphold the absurd," he wrote.

Eighth Amendment?

Considering Scalia is the Super-fan of Originalism, suffice it to say it was telling that he never once mentioned "Eighth Amendment" in his dissent -- in a case that spotlights prison conditions that border on cruel and unusual punishment.

The closest he got was when he acknowledged the Court's requirement that California make "significant progress ... toward remedying the underlying constitutional violations."

Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic, who leveled an equally scathing piece (a dissent from the dissent, if you will), claimed it's indicative of Scalia's "withering writing style" and an increasingly narrow view of the Eighth Amendment.

In some ways, he demonstrated an active denial of California's prison conditions -- conditions like solitary confinement which have led to a protracted hunger strike.

Scalia disagreed with the very idea of an Eighth Amendment class action based on "systemwide deficiencies" and questioned whether the plaintiffs who will benefit from the cap were affected by poor health care, according to the ABA Journal.

"Many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym," he said.

Yeah, he really wrote that.

Lawrence and Windsor?

The dissent closed with a peculiar turn for the unrelated when it shot off into an unabashed claim that the Court has become a "standard ploy, when this Court vastly expands the Power of the Black Robe, to hint at limitations that make it seem not so bad." Yet if the tables were turned, one would have to wonder what this Black Robe would say about the Court's decision on the Voting Rights Act ...

He punctuated his accusation with citations to Lawrence v. Texas and United States v. Windsor. If you're scratching your head because you don't see a connection to the Eighth Amendment, you're not alone.

In his statement from the bench, Justice Scalia didn't acknowledge a failed prison system that produced "needless suffering and death." In his eyes, the prisoners to be released "are just 46,000 happy-go-lucky felons fortunate enough to be selected."

Y'know, because getting humane living conditions (and medical and mental health care) should be just like winning the lottery, or something.

He must love "The Hunger Games."

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