Friday, August 15, 2008
State Courts Have Jurisdiction Over Prisoner Medical Care—C.A.
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
State courts retain jurisdiction over inmates’ habeas corpus petitions alleging inadequate medical care despite a federal judge’s appointment of a receiver to oversee the prison health care system, and the receiver is subject to that jurisdiction, the Fifth District Court of Appeal held yesterday.
Wading into the “jurisdictional quagmire” resulting from inconsistent decisions among the court’s districts, Presiding Justice James A. Ardaiz further concluded that both the receiver and the warden in charge of a petitioner’s prison are necessary and proper parties to respond to inmates’ such petitions in state court.
U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson of the Northern District of California appointed J. Clark Kelso receiver in 2006 after ruling that California is violating the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by failing to provide adequate medical care to its prison population.
Henderson charged Kelso with developing and implementing a systemic remedy, and granted Kelso all powers necessary to do so, including those vested in the secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation relating to administration, control, management, operation and financing. He also suspended the secretary’s exercise of such powers for the receivership’s duration.
In January, Kern Valley State Prison inmate Jesus Estevez filed a habeas petition alleging that he was being denied adequate medical treatment and care due to delay in providing recommended surgery to treat a painful, longstanding spinal condition diagnosed as degenerative disk disease. He requested a writ compelling the warden to provide for the correct treatment, including prompt surgery, pain medication and postsurgical care.
After Attorney General Jerry Brown responded that the warden lacked authority over inmate care and could not respond due to the receivership, and Kelso advised that the attorney general had recently begun to assert that state courts lack jurisdiction over such habeas claims, the court requested further briefing.
Despite Brown’s later concession that the receiver was the proper party, and despite Estevez subsequently receiving surgery, Ardaiz—citing the “substantial uncertainty” raised by the attorney general’s initial position, and decisions by other districts adopting that position—wrote that both Estevez’s claim for postsurgical care, and the “great public import” transcending Estevez’s interest, justified addressing the issue.
“[A] prisoner, who is required to exhaust his or her administrative remedies before bringing a grievance to court…must be aware of the administrative procedures through which to seek relief and, if they are unavailing, must know to which court—state or federal—to turn in order to vindicate his or her rights,” he remarked.
Ardaiz noted that the federal court’s equity power gave it jurisdiction to force public officials to comply with its orders, and that Kelso, as an appointee, stood in the federal court’s shoes.
However, he reasoned, under the system of dual sovereignty governing the state and federal governments, California courts have inherent authority to adjudicate Eight Amendment claims for “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners” brought under the right of habeas corpus guaranteed by the California Constitution.
Directing Kelso and the warden to investigate Estevez’s claims that he was still being denied postsurgical care, Ardaiz wrote:
“Absent a specific and explicit order by the federal district court that suspends state constitutional habeas authority as being inconsistent with the appropriate protection of the constitutional and statutory rights of inmates, we know of no authority by which a federal judge—much less a receiver—can suspend the powers of this court.”
Justices Dennis A. Cornell and Stephen Kane joined Ardaiz in his opinion.
The case is In re Estevez, F054515.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company