The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments today in Schwarzenegger v. Plata, the landmark prison-overcrowding lawsuit that could eventually result in tens of thousands of state inmates being released.
California has faced a lot of problems over the past couple years, from the now annual ritual of state budget meltdown to unconstitutional anti-gay ballot initiatives. Amidst so many woes, the issue of the state's failing prison system has almost taken a back seat.
Yet the Supremes' decision on whether to uphold a Court of Appeals order that the prison population be reduced by 40,000 will be enormously consequential for the state -- and for the prisoners who say they are languishing miserably in an overburdened system.
The ruling came in response to a lawsuit by prisoners, and found that inadequate medical and mental-health care constituted a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
State officials appealed, arguing that it's an unwarranted intrusion by the courts into the functioning of state government. It's an argument that resonates with other states, some 18 of which have filed briefs supporting California.
What can we expect from the High Court? Its conservative majority might be loath to issue a decision that could be seen as assailing states' rights; then again, the gross overcrowding of our prisons is plain to see. The Supremes' ruling will indicate whether we can, or should, look to the federal courts to do anything about it.
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