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DOJ Files Lawsuit Claiming California Law Banning Private Prisons Is Unconstitutional


The Department of Justice (DOJ) on Friday filed a lawsuit against the state of California claiming its new law banning the operation of all privately-owned prisons within the state is unconstitutional and unlawfully discriminates against the Federal Government and its contractors. The law was signed last year by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and went into effect Jan. 1.

“California, of course, is free to decide that it will no longer use private detention facilities for its state prisoners and detainees. But it cannot dictate that choice for the federal government, especially in a manner that discriminates against the federal government and those with whom it contracts,” attorneys for the DOJ wrote in the 16-page complaint filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of California.

The Government contends that it has superior authority over state law derived from several sources, including the U.S. Constitution and Congress:

The Constitution, numerous acts of Congress, and various implementing regulations give the Federal Government both the authority and the prerogative to house individuals in its custody, including in private detention facilities. Exercising that authority, the Federal Government has long contracted with private detention facilities to house deferral prisoners and detainees, and it plans to continue that practice in order to address serious needs for detention space in California and elsewhere.

Specifically, the DOJ is seeking to have the Court declared California law A.B. 32 invalid as a violation of the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution and, therefore, unenforceable against federal private prisons under current and future contract with the federal government.

The Federal Government also argued that “because the USMS [U.S. Marshals Service] has maximized all available space in nearby [Bureau of Prisons] facilities, and is unable to obtain space in state and local facilities in California, its prisoners would likely be housed outside California.”

According to the DOJ, such relocations “would cost significant taxpayer dollars, and require USMS to compete for extremely limited detention space with other agencies, including ICE.”

The state likely expected the federal government’s lawsuit, as the bill was specifically designed, at least in-part, to combat the federal detention facilities on the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the bill’s author Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland).

“We’ve all seen the horrific humanitarian crisis playing out along the border,” Bonta said in a statement about the bill in October. “No human being deserves to be held in the well-documented cruel conditions in these for-profit, private facilities. For that reason, AB 32 was expanded to cover civil detention facilities as well as prisons.”

The federal government filed its lawsuit on the same day that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) sent a formal notice to California regarding its state mandated abortion coverage for health insurers.

The notice said the state “cannot impose universal abortion coverage mandates on health insurance plans and issuers in violation of federal conscience laws,” and claimed that “California has deprived over 28,000 people of plans that did not cover elective abortion, but now must cover abortion due to California’s mandate.”

The Trump administration on Friday otherwise singled out California for its abortion coverage mandate.

Read the full lawsuit below:

DOJ CA Prison Ban Complaint by Law&Crime on Scribd

[Image via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.