A federal judge on Tuesday denied Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's request to remove a court-appointed receiver who wants the cash-strapped state to spend $8 billion to build new health care facilities in its prisons.
U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson in San Francisco rejected the administration's claim that receiver J. Clark Kelso is violating federal law by seeking the construction money. The administration also argued that Kelso is no longer needed because the state is now capable of running its own health care system.
Henderson gave the receiver control of the prison medical system in 2006 after finding conditions in the state's 33 adult prisons so bad that an average of an inmate a week was dying of neglect or malpractice. That hasn't changed, he said in Tuesday's ruling.
"The court is far from confident that (state officials) have the will, capacity, or leadership to provide constitutionally adequate medical care in the absence of a receivership," Henderson wrote.
Still, he promised to make sure Kelso's plans don't exceed what is needed to improve conditions to legally required levels, and to turn the system back to the state once he's satisfied conditions have improved.
"The court remains committed to ensuring that the receivership is neither excessive nor wasteful, and the Court again reiterates that the receivership is not and was never intended to be a permanent solution," Henderson said in his 24-page ruling.
Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Lisa Page said she could not immediately comment on whether the administration will appeal Henderson's ruling. The state has 30 days to decide whether to appeal.
Kelso is seeking to hold Schwarzenegger in contempt of court for refusing to turn over a $250 million down payment to design up to seven medical and mental health centers for 10,000 inmates. A decision on whether he has the power to order the state to spend money on prison construction is before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In both cases, the state argued the receiver is violating the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act.
"I look forward with renewed commitment to working collaboratively with state officials and agencies to achieve our shared goal of improving prison medical and health care to constitutional levels and transitioning the management of prison health care back to the state," Kelso said in a statement following Tuesday's ruling.
Other developments also could affect his construction plan.
A federal three-judge panel tentatively ordered the state to cut its inmate population by about one-third to ease overcrowding, which could reduce the number of medical facilities needed.
Kelso has offered to scale back his plans as necessary because of the state's ongoing fiscal problems. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's office projects California faces an $8 billion deficit even after legislators approved a budget to close a $42 billion gap through June 2010.
State Attorney General Jerry Brown has been particularly critical of Kelso. He called the receivership "a parallel government operating virtually in secret" during a January news conference announcing that the state would seek to end the receivership.
Henderson rejected those arguments, saying Kelso has been open and cooperative.
"I think it shows that the attorney general's position had no merit and it was more of a political gesture than a legal argument," said Don Specter, director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office that represents inmates in the case. "The way to end this receivership is for the state to cooperate with the receiver to improve medical care to constitutional levels."
Brown spokesman Scott Gerber declined to immediately comment.