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Sotomayor Blasts Conservative Justices for Enabling Jailers Who Were ‘Indifferent’ About COVID-19 Threat to Inmates


U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor again called out her conservative colleagues on the bench for issuing a far-reaching stay without letting the lower courts fully hash out the legal issues.

“Disregarding the District Court’s detailed factual findings, its application of established law, and the fact that the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has twice denied a stay pending its review of the District Court’s order, this Court again intervenes to grant a stay before the Circuit below has heard and decided the case on the merits,” the nation’s most left-most justice notes in a caustic dissent joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The ruling itself is a 5-4 decision in favor of jails in–and the sheriff of–Orange County, California. The decision cuts sharply against the interests and safety of the people jailed in those facilities–who allege their jailers and law enforcement have failed to adequately protect against the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is representing the incarcerated individuals and offers the following profile of the lead plaintiff in the case now stylized as Barnes v. Ahlman:

Melissa Ahlman, 32, is housed in the Central Women’s Jail in Santa Ana. Multiple times per day, she pumps milk for her seven-month-old baby. After each pumping session, she must wait in crowded areas alongside sick people seeking medical treatment to deliver the milk to nurses.

The district court agreed with the incarcerated people in those jails–finding that county officials lied under oath about the extent and efficiency of their preventative measures–and concluding that those measures fell “well short” of COVID-19 guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Sotomayor explains the lower court’s ruling:

Based on detailed factual findings, which the Ninth Circuit credited, the District Court concluded that the risk of harm in the [Orange County] Jail was “undeniably high.” The court further determined that while the Jail may have formally adopted a policy to mitigate that risk, its actual compliance was “piecemeal and inadequate.” On this evidence, the District Court held that respondents were likely to succeed in showing that the Jail was deliberately indifferent to the health and safety of its inmates and that it had violated federal disability rights law. In response, the court imposed a preliminary injunction that closely followed the CDC Guidelines for correctional and detention facilities.

“The District Court concluded that by demonstrating the Jail’s failure to implement basic safety measures of which it was well aware, respondents had established a likelihood of success on their claim that the Jail had been deliberately indifferent to the serious risk COVID-19 posed to the health of its inmates,” the dissent notes later.

The stay motion and petition for certiorari claim the jails will be “irreparably harmed” if they are forced to abide by the district court’s ruling which mandates social distancing and temperature checks. But Sotomayor argues these points of contention directly defy the logic contained in authorities’ on-the-record statements.

“The measures [the jail] now decries as vexatious judicial micromanagement are the same measures that just months ago it claimed were, ‘at a minimum,’ already being implemented,” the dissent continues. “If the Jail is already doing everything required by the injunction, then what irreparable harm does the injunction post? And if it is not, and the Jail misrepresented its actions under oath to the District Court, then why should the Jail benefit from this Court’s equitable discretion?”

“This Court normally does not reward bad behavior, and certainly not with extraordinary equitable relief,” Sotomayor witheringly added.

A footnote further elucidates the apparent trouble here:

Given the nature of the “rare and exceptional” relief the Jail seeks, this Court has an independent obligation to weigh the equities. The Jail’s misrepresentations to the District Court are one factor to consider. Another is that on the very same day it asked this Court to intervene in its pending appellate proceedings, the Jail requested from the Ninth Circuit a 1-month extension to file its opening brief. One might wonder, then, whether the Jail’s need for relief is quite as urgent as the Jail makes out.

“The District Court found that, despite knowing the severe threat posed by COVID-19 and contrary to its own apparent policies, the [Orange County] Jail exposed its inmates to significant risks from a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease,” Sotomayor concludes. “Yet this Court now intervenes, leaving to its own devices a jail that has misrepresented its actions to the District Court and failed to safeguard the health of the inmates in its care.”

[image via Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

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