US Supreme Court to hear California cases

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The U.S. Supreme Court gets back to work in two weeks. Two cases on the court’s docket are of particular interest to California.

The case California officials will watch closely involves prison overcrowding. Last year, a panel of federal judges ordered California to reduce its inmate population by more than 40,000, saying crowded conditions led to inadequate medical care for prisoners. They ordered the prisons down to 137 percent of their actual capacity.

Pamela Harris heads the Georgetown Law Supreme Court Institute. She says California sued, arguing the federal court had exceeded its authority, using very strong language. She says the state considered the order "as a sort of massive and unprecedented interference by a federal court with state management of its own prison system."

Federal involvement in state and local business is nothing new to California. The L.A. Police Department operated under a federal consent decree for eight years. But Harris says there’s something different about a federal court ordering the state to release thousands of inmates from prison. "It at least suggests," he says, "a level of intrusion in a very core state operation that is or ought to be – if not unacceptable, then absolutely only used as a last resort."

Harris says the justice to watch is Anthony Kennedy, the only Californian on the bench. She says he’s concerned that states are locking up too many people in prison for too long. But Georgetown’s Pamela Harris says Justice Kennedy also doesn’t like federal courts butting into state business. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the California prison population case at the end of November.

Another California case involves two state laws that passed five years ago – but never went into effect. They restricted the sale of violent video games to minors.

Professor Peter Edelman says the underlying thinking is that selling violence to minors is as bad as selling them pornography. Edelman, who teaches First Amendment law at Georgetown, says the Ninth Circuit didn’t buy the argument.

Edelman says the court of appeals was unimpressed by psychological research presented by the state of California that claimed violent videos damage children. He says he doubts that research will sway the Supreme Court, either. "It comes down to a societal decision about morality that takes selling pornography to children much more seriously – perhaps properly so in terms of taking it seriously – but much more seriously than selling video violence to children."

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court threw out a ban on so-called “crush” videos that depict animal cruelty; the justices said the ban was too broad. Professor Edelman says he’d be surprised if the Supreme Court upholds California’s ban on the sale of violent video games to minors.

The court hears arguments in that case on November 2.

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