Prison Litigation and District Court’s Effect on the Electoral Process

BY LAWRENCE K. KARLTON, 69 U. Miami L. Rev. 377 (2015).

I was likely invited here because of my involvement in litigation concerning the California prison system; two of the cases I was involved in sought significant social change. The first case, Coleman v. Wilson,deals with the problem of providing adequate care for the mentally ill who are in prison. This is an extraordinarily complex problem, exemplified by the fact that the case was decided over twenty-five years ago, and we are still working out the resolution today. The second case came while I was a member of a three-judge court that was convened under the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

First, we should discuss the issue of how to litigate cases concerning significant social change. To begin with, judges do not go out and find cases that they think would lead to socially desirable ends. Instead, they sit in court and wait until a case shows up in front of them. Moreover, my district, like most every district in the United States Courts, has elaborate rules that seek to avoid forum shopping.That is not to say that dedicated lawyers cannot get to the judge that they think will have some sympathy toward their position, but it is to say that getting to said judge requires great resourcefulness.

There are some significant differences in prison litigation, because of its relationship to the aim of social change, as compared to other areas of the law. The American system of justice is a system ultimately structured to deal with disputes between individuals, and the questions to be resolved are questions of application of law to those individual cases. But litigation that looks toward significant social change is really quite different because it deals with questions of systemic failure, not of individual failure.

One realization I have come to over the many years that I have been involved in these kinds of cases is one that many lawyers have not yet come to grips with: that the function of plaintiffs’ lawyers is really to demonstrate systemic failure, while the function of the defense lawyers is to demonstrate errors, mistakes, and even bad people. But individual errors, mistakes, and bad people do not result in the kinds of judgments that provide mental health services to prisoners.

Let me say something else that I have experienced, and I cannot imagine any judge in my position that has not experienced it. It is self- evident that, if you are a lawyer and you have an important question or issue of fact, your first duty is to sit down and ask yourself, “how do I assure that this evidence is admissible?”

The district judge, however, has a very different job. His question, assuming that the plaintiffs prevail, is “how to structure his opinion so that it will survive appellate review.” In a circuit such as mine, where there are approximately thirty court of appeals judges,this becomes very difficult. Ultimately, what you are left with is narrowly structuring the opinion based on the very complex facts that have been generated in the lawsuit.

The Wilson judgment ultimately determined that the provision of mental healthcare to persons in California’s prisons was so insufficient that it violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.In that case, I appointed a special master.His first job was to work with the prison authorities to develop a program guide, which would ultimately resolve itself into a satisfaction of the constitutional violations that had been found. His second job was to implement it. The first job was relatively easy, especially when examined in light of the extraordinary difficulty of the second job. The reasons for that difficulty are extremely complex. At least in part, though, the problem in California and throughout the country is that we no longer have adequate care for the severely mentally ill. What we do, instead, is we criminalize mental illness. About a third of the prisoners in California’s prisons are persons suffering from serious mental illness.And if that does not worry us, it ought to. . . . Full Article.

Recommended Citation: Lawrence K. Karlton, Prison Litigation and District Court’s Effect on the Electoral Process, 69 U. Miami L. Rev. 377 (2015).

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