Schwarzenegger v. Plata (09-1233)

Oral argument: Nov. 30, 2010

Appealed from: United States District Courts for the Eastern District of California and the Northern District of California (Aug. 4, 2009)


Plata v. Schwarzenegger and Coleman v. Schwarzenegger were separate class actions concerning healthcare conditions in California state prisons. Although the cases were decided separately, they resulted in similar outcomes: the district court in each case determined that the lack of adequate physical or mental care violated the prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights, leading to years of court orders designed to remedy the violations. After California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency due to prison overcrowding in 2006, the Plata and Coleman plaintiffs argued that the only means of remedying the continued constitutional violations was the release of significant numbers of inmates from state prisons. Subsequently, a three-judge district court convened under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”) issued a prisoner release order. Governor Schwarzenegger and other state officials (“Schwarzenegger”) appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. They contend that the three-judge district court improperly applied the PLRA because California had not had sufficient time to implement the latest court order. Schwarzenegger also contends that the district court failed to determine that overcrowding was the primary cause of the violations. In response, the Plata and Coleman plaintiffs, along with the California Correctional Police Officers’ Association, argue that the PLRA was properly applied because the state was given a reasonable amount of time to comply with previous court orders and the prisoner release order remedied the primary cause of the violations. The Supreme Court’s decision will determine when courts may remedy constitutional violations through a prisoner release order under the PLRA, and could dramatically alter the number of prisoners and the services provided in California prisons.

· [Questions presented]

· [Issue]

· [Facts]

· [Discussion]

· [Analysis]

Questions presented

1. Whether the three-judge district court had jurisdiction to issue a “prisoner release order” pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), 18 U.S.C. § 3626.

2. Whether the court below properly interpreted and applied Section 3626(a)(3)(E), which requires a three-judge court to find, by clear and convincing evidence, that “crowding is the primary cause of the violation of a Federal right; and . . . no other relief will remedy the violation of the Federal right” in order to issue a “prisoner release order.”

3. Whether the three-judge court’s “prisoner release order,” which was entered to address the allegedly unconstitutional delivery of medical and mental health care to two classes of California inmates, but mandates a system-wide population cap within two years that will require a population reduction of approximately 46,000 inmates, satisfies the PLRA’s nexus and narrow tailoring requirements while giving sufficient weight to potential adverse effects on public safety and the State’s operation of its criminal justice system.



1. Did the three-judge district court have jurisdiction to issue an order releasing inmates from California prisons?

2. If the district court did have jurisdiction, was the prison release order the only option capable of providing adequate physical and mental health services to California inmates while still preserving public safety?



The plaintiffs in Coleman v. Schwarzenegger filed a class action in 1990, alleging that the failure to provide services to inmates with mental disabilities in the California prison system violated their rights under the Eighth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Rehabilitation Act. See 2009 WL 2430820 at 12 (2010). The alleged violations stemmed from the inability of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (“CDCR”) to identify the number of mentally disabled inmates. See id. In 1995, the district court adopted a magistrate’s finding that the inadequate delivery of mental health services violated the Eighth Amendment. See id. at 4. The court appointed a special master who oversaw mental healthcare in California prisons for fourteen years. See id. In the intervening years, the district court has found that, due to the inadequate remedial efforts and the growing California prison population, thousands of California inmates continued to lack adequate mental healthcare in violation of the Eight Amendment. See id.

In a subsequent 2001 class action suit, Plata v. Schwarzenegger, a different group of California inmates alleged constitutional violations due to inadequate medical care, in addition to violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act in California prisons. See Coleman, 2009 WL 2430820 at 3. The Plata plaintiffs alleged that the lack of adequate healthcare led to unnecessary pain and suffering, injury, and death in the prisons. See id. The parties settled the suit, and the CDCR agreed to implement measures to meet the minimum level of care required under the Eighth Amendment. See id. As part of the implementation, medical experts submitted periodic reports on the status of healthcare in prisons. See id. In 2005, the district court found that the CDCR was unable to provide healthcare in compliance with the Eight Amendment and ordered the appointment of a receiver to monitor and implement changes to the prison health care system. See id. In 2006, the court appointed the receiver, who instituted some changes in the prison healthcare system. See id. at 11.

On October 4, 2006, Governor Schwarzenegger issued a Prison Overcrowding State of Emergency Proclamation because all thirty-three of California's prisons were operating at or above capacity. See Coleman, 2009 WL 2430820 at id. at 23. The Governor suggested that the prison overcrowding problem caused a greater risk of serious illnesses in the prisons, posed security problems, and created sewage spills and environmental pollution by overloading the prisons' sewage and wastewater systems. See id. The problem with prison overcrowding persisted despite the efforts of the courts to remedy the problem. See id. A CDCR weekly population report from 2006 stated that California prisons were operating at 200.2% above their design capacity. See id.

In 2007, the Plata and Coleman plaintiffs argued that prison overcrowding was a primary cause of the CDCR’s inability to provide adequate medical and mental health care to inmates. See Coleman, 2009 WL 2430820 at 2. The Plata and Coleman courts agreed to convene a three-judge court to consider a reduction of the prison population as a means of remedying the ongoing constitutional violations. See id. at 24–25. The three-judge court took its authority from the PLRA which gives federal courts in civil actions the authority to issue prison release orders. See id. at 28. For a court to issue such an order, the order must be “truly necessary” to remedy ongoing violations and overcrowding must be the primary cause for the alleged constitutional violations. See id. at 29.

In 2009, the three-judge court, representing the district courts below, addressed the overcrowding problem in California’s prison population. See Coleman, 2009 WL 2430820 at 29. The three-judge court found that the overcrowding was the primary cause of the ongoing violations under Plata and Coleman, and that releasing prisoners was the only relief available. See id. The court also found that the relief was narrowly tailored and did not pose a public safety risk. See id. The panel issued an order giving the defendants 45 days to present a plan to limit the prison population to 137.5% percent of design capacity within two years. See id. at 116.

Governor Schwarzenegger appealed to the Supreme Court on grounds that the three-judge district court improperly interpreted the PLRA’s requirements for a prison release order. In addition to this issue, the Supreme Court will address whether the federal courts’ order was narrow enough to satisfy the PLRA’s requirements.



The decision in this case will determine whether the three-judge court had jurisdiction to issue a prison release order, and if so, whether the order was narrowly tailored to remedy the Eighth Amendment healthcare violations. The case will also address whether the court properly interpreted the standards for issuing such an order under the PLRA. The decision could affect public welfare and prisoners’ health and welfare, and determine the extent to which federal judges should be involved in decisions concerning state prison systems.

Public Welfare

The Center on the Administration of Criminal Law and 30 criminologists (“CACL”) argue that prison reduction programs can be instituted in ways that do not harm public welfare. See Brief for Center on the Administration of Criminal Law and 30 Criminologists in Support of Appellees at 9. To support its argument, the CACL argues that other states have reduced their prison populations through such means as increasing parole grant rates, increasing good-time credits, and diverting low-risk offenders from prisons, and that these measures did not lead to higher rates of crimes. See id. at 10.

Alternatively, the attorneys general of Louisiana and 17 other states (“States”) argue that a prison release will have detrimental effects on public welfare. See Brief for the States of Louisiana, et al. in Support of Appellants at 27. They contend that California officials would have no choice but to throw open the prison doors for 46,000 prisoners who are the "best of the worst." See id. at 2728. As an example, the States cite the city of Philadelphia, which released prisoners in order to reduce the prison population and subsequently experienced a crime wave. See id. at 29.

Federalism Concerns

The Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce (“GSCC”) contends that the federal courts should limit their involvement in prison release orders because an overactive judiciary would upset the balance between state and federal power. See Brief for Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce in Support of Appellants at 19. The GSCC asserts that the PLRA limits the scope of federal court jurisdiction in matters involving state prison policies by creating a high threshold that federal judges must meet before they intervene in this area. See id. The rationale for this high threshold, according to the GSCC, is that federal judges are not well equipped to make decisions involving state budgetary concerns. See id.

On the other hand, a group of corrections and law enforcement personnel argues that the federal courts need to be heavily involved in issuing prison release orders because California's attempts at remedying the problem of prison overcrowding have failed. See Brief for Corrections and Law Enforcement Personnel in Support of Appellees at 19. They contend that, over the past 15 years, the courts have issued over 75 orders to bring the CDCR healthcare system up to constitutional standards, but these efforts have still fallen short. See id. Therefore, these amici contend that a ruling in favor of the Plata and Coleman plaintiffs would allow the federal judiciary to have greater involvement in remedying the prison overcrowding problem, which they see as necessary considering the previous failure of the state to fix the problem. See id. at 21.

Effects on Prisoners

The American Bar Association (“ABA”) asserts that a decision in favor of Governor Schwarzenegger would have deleterious effects on prisoners because it would fail to remedy the problems caused by prison overcrowding. See Brief for the American Bar Association in Support of Appellees at 6. They cite studies that demonstrate correlations between prison overcrowding and poor health effects. See id. at 7. The ABA also asserts that prisoners with mental health problems are likely to affect other prisoners, so a decision that disallows a remedy to overcrowding could negatively affect non-ill prisoners as well. See id. at 8.

The States counter that prisoners need to reach a higher threshold in order to show a violation of their constitutional rights, and a decision in favor of Governor Schwarzenegger would place an important burden on a prisoner attempting to show such a violation. See Brief for the States at 17. They argue that prisoners need to show that actual harm resulted from the deliberate indifference of state employees for inmate health and safety. See id.



The PLRA is a federal statute specifying when federal courts may issue prisoner release orders. See Brief for Appellants, Arnold Schwarzenegger et al. at 2. Only three-judge district courts can issue a prisoner release order. See id. Such a court can be convened only if a single-judge district court issued a less intrusive order that was given a reasonable amount of time to, but could not, remedy the alleged violations. See id. at 4–5. Furthermore, the PLRA requires that overcrowding be the primary cause of the federal violation; that a prisoner release is the only remedy; and that public safety is not endangered by the release. See id. at 2–3. The dispute in this case is whether these requirements were met. See id. at 10–13.

Was the three-judge district court properly convened?

Schwarzenegger argues that the state was not given a reasonable amount of time to comply with the most recent court order, which placed the prison system in receivership. See Brief for Appellants at 13–14. Title 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(3)(A) requires that a court previously enter an order for less intrusive relief, and that the defendant be given a reasonable amount of time to comply with that order. See Brief for Appellants at 13. Schwarzenegger contends that the statutory language indicates that the “order” is the most recent court order, rather than the original court order finding constitutional violations. See id. at 15–16. Schwarzenegger asserts that giving the state a reasonable amount of time to comply with the most recent court order is consistent with Congress’s intent to make a prisoner release the remedy of last resort. See id. Finally, Schwarzenegger claims that the state was making improvements and was not given a reasonable amount of time to comply with the receivership’s orders. See id. at 17–20.

Alternatively, appellee Plata argues that the reasonableness of the time should be based on the entire ten-year history of the case, and not just the most recent court order. See Brief for Appellee Plata at 28. Plata and Coleman state that when looking at the entire history of the cases, it is clear that the state was given a reasonable amount of time to fix the violations but was unable to do so. See id. at 29–31; Brief for Appellee Coleman at 40. Additionally, Coleman states that Congress would have been more specific if it intended the phrase “previous order” to mean “most recent order.” See Brief for Coleman at 42. Finally, Coleman contends that Schwarzenegger’s interpretation leads to absurd results because it would require the single judge to stop issuing remedial orders and let violations occur before being able to convene a three-judge court. See id. at 41.

The California Correctional Police Officers’ Association (“CCPOA”) advances another interpretation of “previous court order.”See Brief for Appellee Intervenor at 22. According to the CCPOA, an order that slightly improve conditions but cannot, by itself, fix the federal violations does not count as a “previous court order.” See id. Thus, according to the CCPOA, the 2006 and 2007 decisions by the district courts did not trigger the reasonable amount of time requirement. See id. at 27.

Was prison overcrowding the primary cause of the constitutional violations and was the prison release order the only available remedy?

Under 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(3)(E), overcrowded prison conditions must be the primary cause for the alleged federal rights violation, and no other relief must be available to remedy the violation. See Brief for Appellants at 26. Schwarzenegger makes three arguments for why Section 3626(a)(3)(E) was improperly interpreted.

First, Schwarzenegger contends that the district court used out-of-date evidence to erroneously determine that overcrowding caused the federal violations at issue. See Brief for Appellants at 26, 29. Plata and Coleman, however, argue that the court did consider current evidence before issuing the prisoner release order. See Brief for Plata at 35–36; Brief for Coleman at 49–50.

Second, Schwarzenegger asserts that “primary cause” means an elevated level of “but for” causation. See Brief for Appellants at 31. Furthermore, Schwarzenegger argues that overcrowding may slow the progress of other remedies, but that alone does not make it the primary cause of rights violations. See id. at 33. Finally, Schwarzenegger asks for a bright line test to determine if overcrowding is the primary cause of the federal violations: if a prison release order would undo all of the federal violations, then the prison release under the PLRA is valid. See id. Schwarzenegger then argues that, in this case, releasing prisoners would not completely fix the Eighth Amendment violations. See id. at 34.

In response, Plata and Coleman argue for the “ordinary and popular” meaning of “primary cause” found in a dictionary. See Brief for Plata at 39; Brief for Coleman at 47. Thus, they argue that the proper interpretation of “primary cause” should be “the chief or principal cause.” See Brief for Plata at 39. Additionally, Plata argues that Congress would have used the “but for” language if it wanted “but for” causation when writing “primary cause” in the statute. See id. at 39. Furthermore, Plata argues against Schwarzenegger’s bright line test because it would implicate the statute’s constitutionality. See id. at 40. Additionally, CCPOA posits that the bright line test is unrealistic; complex problems stem from multiple causes and usually cannot be remedied with one method. See Brief for Appellee Intervenor at 42.

Third, Schwarzenegger argues that other remedies could have solved the constitutional violations, such as the construction of new prisons, additional hiring, out-of-state transfers, and additional activity from the receiver and special master. See Brief for Appellants at 36–40. In Plata and Coleman’s views, these other proposed remedies would not solve the constitutional violations. See Brief for Plata at 46–49; Brief for Coleman at 51–54. Coleman also argues that these other remedies may still be used by California in conjunction with the prisoner release order. See Brief for Coleman at 50.

Was the prisoner release order narrowly tailored and did it properly weigh public safety issues?

Any remedies under the PLRA must be necessary to correct the federal violations, and cannot be arbitrary or overbroad. See Brief for Appellants at 40. The three-judge district court ordered the state to decrease prisoner populations to 137.5% of the design capacity. See Brief for Plata at 50. Schwarzenegger argues that the 137.5% number was picked by the court based on policy considerations rather than as a specific remedy for the Eighth Amendment violations. See Brief for Appellants at 48. Additionally, Schwarzenegger asserts that the prisoner release order is too broad because it applies to all prisoners, while the federal violations only affected two specific groups of prisoners, those with mental and medical illnesses. See id. at 50. Finally, Schwarzenegger contends that the prisoner release order violates federalism because the federal government is imposing a massive burden on the states. See id. at 51–52.

In response, Plata argues that studies validate the 137.5% cap. See Brief for Plata at 50–54. Furthermore, Plata and Coleman argue that the prisoner release order is proper because overcrowding among all prisoners has a direct and deleterious effect on prisoners with medical or mental illnesses. See id. at 54; Brief for Coleman at 32, 56–57. Coleman also argues that federal intervention may be beneficial because it decreases political pressure on state officials. See Brief for Coleman at 33. Finally, Plata and Coleman contend that the prisoner release order does not undermine federalism, but gives the state flexibility in choosing the exact method to use to reach the 137.5% cap. See Brief for Plata at 55–56; Brief for Coleman at 57–58.

Finally, Schwarzenegger argues that the three-judge district court did not give substantial weight to public safety concerns. See Brief for Appellants at 53. Specifically, Schwarzenegger contends that the court did not fully evaluate the public safety impact of the release order, which will result in thousands of prisoners being let out of jail before the end of their terms. See id. at 53–54. Schwarzenegger also asserts that it was improper for the court to assume that public safety studies from an earlier prisoner release order can be applied to the current prisoner release. See id. at 54.

Plata and Coleman argue that the court spent a sufficient amount of time weighing the public safety concerns and looked at empirical evidence from other prisoner release orders. See Brief for Plata at 58–59; Brief for Coleman at 58–60. Additionally, Plata states that many expert witnesses testified there were several ways to minimize public safety concerns. See Brief for Plata at 59–60. Finally, Coleman states that the savings from releasing some prisoners can be used to implement programs to protect public safety. See Brief for Coleman at 59–60.



This case will determine when prisoner release orders can be issued by three-judge district courts to remedy constitutional violations in state prisons. Schwarzenegger argues that such orders can only be issued after the state has had a reasonable amount of time to implement the most recent single-judge district court order, and that overcrowding must be the direct cause of the federal violations. On the other hand, Plata and Coleman argue that California has had an adequate amount of time to remedy its constitutional violations, yet is still unable to protect the Eighth Amendment rights of certain prisoners. The outcome of this case will affect not only California state prisoners with mental and physical health issues; it may lead to the release of thousands of other California inmates.



Prepared by: Sara Myers and John Sun

Edited by: Catherine Suh


The authors would like to thank former Supreme Court Reporter of Decisions Frank Wagner for his assistance in editing this preview.

Additional Sources

· Los Angeles Times, David G. Savage: California Prison Release Order on Hold Pending Supreme Court Review (Jan. 19, 2010)

· McClatchy Newspapers, Michael Doyle: Supreme Court to Hear California’s Appeal of Prison Release Order (June 14, 2010)

· Harvard Law Review: Recent Cases – Coleman v. Schwarzenegger


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