Supreme Court upholds law on state control of prisons

5-4 decision concerns orders by federal judges on facility operations

June 20, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Splitting 5-4, the Supreme Court upheld a federal law that makes it easier for states to block judges' orders - sometimes in effect for decades - that control how the states run their prisons.

The court ruled that Congress had authority to order a suspension of those orders at the requests of states, pending a test in court of whether the orders are too broad and should be pared or scuttled.

Congress responded in 1996 to complaints by states that their authority over their prisons was being usurped by sweeping court orders regulating such details as cell size, medical treatment and exercise periods for inmates. The courts had imposed those restrictions after finding that the conditions in many state prisons were "cruel and unusual" and thus were unconstitutional.

Under the 1996 law, no such court order could remain in effect longer than necessary to cure the constitutional violation. Also, the order had to be the narrowest possible cure available to leave more discretion to state officials.

Yesterday's ruling upheld the provision in the law that automatically stopped the operation of any prison conditions order that a state challenged and sought to terminate.

A federal appeals court ruled that this interruption was an unconstitutional interference with the power of courts to issue rulings and orders they deemed necessary to correct unconstitutional conditions.

The Supreme Court overturned that decision in an opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Because Congress had changed the law covering how far a prison conditions order could reach, O'Connor said, the law did not intrude on the judiciary by interrupting such an order during a court test.

The ruling came in a case involving the Pendleton Correctional Facility in Indiana, which has been under court-ordered restrictions on conditions for 18 years.

O'Connor's opinion was supported by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter dissented from the broadest part of the ruling, and Justices Stephen G. Breyer and John Paul Stevens dissented from all parts.

In other orders yesterday, the court took on two new issues for review in the term starting in October.

It agreed to decide, in a Wisconsin case, whether adult bookstores that are turned down when they seek to renew their city licenses have a constitutional right to stay in business while they challenge that denial in court.

The court also said it would rule on whether the federal law that controls insurance and pension benefits overrides state laws on the distribution of benefits after a divorce.

That issue arose out of a Washington state woman's effort to collect the benefits from her husband who died soon after they were divorced.

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