U.S. Supreme Court blocks judge’s order that California jail must take better care of inmates exposed to coronavirus

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, Aug. 5, blocked a lower court order that the Orange County jail system practice social distancing, distribute hand sanitizer and keep the facilities clean to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

Justices voted 5-4 to stay the earlier order issued by U.S. District Judge Jesus G. Bernal against Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes. The sheriff asked for an emergency appeal after Bernal ruled in May that Barnes had been inconsistent in following federal guidelines to protect jail inmates from the spread of coronavirus.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg offered a dissenting opinion Wednesday.

“This Court normally does not reward bad behavior, and certainly not with extraordinary equitable relief,” they wrote. “The injunction’s requirements are not remarkable. In fact, the Jail initially claimed that it had already implemented each and every one of them.”

The dissenting opinion noted that the 3,000-inmate jail system had recently reported 15 new cases in a single week.

Said Sotomayor and Ginsberg: “The District Court found that, despite knowing the severe threat posed by COVID–19 and contrary to its own apparent policies, the Jail exposed its inmates to significant risks from a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease. 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.”

The court majority did not explain its ruling.

Carrie Braun, spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department, said Barnes would not comment other than to say he was pleased.

Local rule necessary

In a motion filed by Orange County Counsel Leon Page, the county argued that local rule unhampered by the courts was necessary to make the critical decisions to manage the virus.

“This Court has … ruled twice during this pandemic that broad latitude must be given to the local officials entrusted with protecting the health and safety of its citizens during this pandemic,” Page wrote. “What the factual record prominently shows is that Applicants have a robust medical quarantine and isolation procedure in place that is successfully minimizing spread.”

The American Civil Liberties Union responded that the high court should not have interceded at this early stage in the case.

“The Supreme Court’s decision to stay the court’s order comes at a time when COVID is spiking around the country, in Orange County, and in the Orange County Jail. Those in custody face enormous risk,” said Carl Takei, senior staff attorney of the ACLU Trone Center for Justice and Equality.  “And while Orange County officials had argued to the Supreme Court that there is no longer any threat from COVID infections from transmission within the jail, this — like other representations defendants previously made to the district court — is false.”

Takei added: “In recent weeks there have been multiple, dangerous outbreaks, sickening even more people in the jail under the county’s watch because of its mismanagement. As the courts delay and abdicate their responsibility to enforce the Constitution, our clients are exposed to serious risks of illness and death.”

The jail reported it had 489 cases of coronavirus among inmates, 71 of them active.



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