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Supreme Court blocks mandate requiring better coronavirus protections for inmates in California case

David G. Savage, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday freed jails in Orange County, California, from a federal judge's order that required social distancing among inmates, regular testing and distribution of cleaning supplies and hand sanitizers.

Acting by a 5-4 vote, the justices granted an emergency appeal from the county's lawyers and put on hold an order issued in late May by U.S. District Judge Jesus G. Bernal.

As usual, the justices in the majority did not explain their decision. The four liberal justices dissented. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said inmates had filed statements with the judge contradicting the claims of county jailers that CDC guidelines were being closely followed.

"This court normally does not reward bad behavior, and certainly not with extraordinary equitable relief," she wrote in a dissent joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "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."

In its appeal two weeks ago, the county said it had released 2,300 inmates, or 53% of the total, in response to the pandemic, and asserted there is "currently zero transmission" of the virus inside the jails.

"There is no doubt that there are significant and dangerous outbreaks in some custodial institutions in this country. The Orange County Jails are not one of them, and the use of a federal injunction to micromanage their daily operations is unsupported in fact or law," the county said in the case of Ahlman vs. Barnes.


Lawyers representing the inmates said Bernal's intervention was crucial. They said inmates had been crowded together during the day, resulting in more than 300 inmates testing positive for the virus in late May. They said inmates had been "provided watered-down disinfectant and make-shift masks made from blood-stained sheets; and symptomatic detainees were being denied tests."

Wednesday's order is consistent with the court's hands-off approach to disputes arising from the coronavirus.

Led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the high court has issued a series of recent rulings that have told federal judges to defer to state and local officials involving elections, church gatherings and prisons.

Roberts was sharply criticized by his conservative colleagues and by religious rights advocates for decisions that left in place rules set by Democratic governors in Nevada, California and Illinois that limited the number of people at indoor church services.


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