Supreme Court Overrules Judge’s Order Requiring Inmate Social Distancing, Daily Temperature Taking in Orange County, Calif.

August 6, 2020 Updated: August 6, 2020

The Supreme Court voted 5–4 to pause a federal judge’s order requiring jails in Orange County, California, to enforce inmate social distancing and other hygienic practices.

The ruling in the case cited as Barnes v. Ahlman was issued late Aug. 5, and continues the court’s hands-off approach in which it defers to elected officials on how to handle the pandemic.

The court, in line with custom, didn’t offer a rationale for the order.

The liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the grant of stay.

In a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of prisoners by the ACLU of Southern California, U.S. District Judge Jesus G. Bernal, who was appointed in 2012 by former President Barack Obama, ruled the county sheriff’s efforts to keep inmates safe from COVID-19 were inadequate.

Bernal based his order on testimony that quarantines weren’t consistently observed and that some inmates were wearing face masks made from ripped sheets stained with feces and blood, The Orange County Register reported in late May.

“These continuing compliance failures are not isolated incidents that affect a single plaintiff. When defendants fail to quarantine symptomatic individuals or provide sufficient cleaning supplies, all inmates are at risk,” Bernal wrote in his decision. “Defendants have submitted no persuasive evidence contradicting the accounts of the inmates.”

Bernal ordered the jailers to take the temperature of inmates daily and interview them about jail conditions.

But in their application to the nation’s highest court, Orange County lawyers argued that the virus wasn’t a problem in their detention facilities, urging the court to let the county manage its own affairs.

“There is no doubt that there are significant and dangerous outbreaks in some custodial institutions in this country,” the lawyers said in a brief. “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.”

In court filings two weeks ago, the county reported it had released 2,300 inmates, or 53 percent of the total, to respond to the public health emergency, and declared there was “currently zero transmission” of the virus inside its four jails. The ACLU countered that more than 300 residents had already tested positive.

“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,” the county lawyers 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 lawyers also suggested that Bernal had been improperly meddling in county business.

The injunction he issued “seizes the role of administration of the jail, prevents nimble responses to the virus in an ever-changing landscape and puts focus on compliance with the order and avoiding contempt, rather than squarely on combating the contagion.”

In her sharply worded dissent that was joined by Ginsburg, Sotomayor stated that inmates’ evidence contradicted jailers’ testimony that CDC guidelines were being adhered to carefully.

“The jail claimed that it had already achieved proper social distancing, provided inmates enough soap for frequent hand washing, and isolated and tested all symptomatic individuals. … Inmates described being transported back and forth to the jail in crammed buses, socializing in day rooms with no space to distance physically, lining up next to each other to wait for the phone, sleeping in bunk beds two to three feet apart, and even being ordered to stand closer than six feet apart when inmates tried to socially distance.

“This court normally does not reward bad behavior, and certainly not with extraordinary equitable relief,” Sotomayor wrote.

“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.”

The class-action lawsuit continues.