J. Clark Kelso wasn't the least bit surprised by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion directing that California cut prison population by roughly 30,000 inmates.
Kelso is the court-appointed receiver who oversees health care in the state prison system, documents its many failures, and pushes for improvements.
More than that, Kelso has a personal bond with Kennedy. He was Kennedy's law clerk in 1983 and 1984 when Kennedy was on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
When President Ronald Reagan nominated Kennedy to serve on the high court in 1987, Kelso helped Kennedy prepare for U.S. Senate confirmation hearings.
"He was an educator at heart," Kelso said, recalling his time as Kennedy's law clerk. "I call him 'Justice' to this day."
Their relationship has its roots at McGeorge School of Law, where Kennedy taught. When he is not overseeing the prison health care system, Kelso teaches constitutional law at McGeorge.
Kelso's father, Charles Kelso, teaches there, and his late mother, Jane Kelso, was dean of students. They all were colleagues.
All this is to say that Kelso knows Kennedy and his philosophy well. Yes, Kennedy usually sides with prosecutors.
But there are nuances, as evidenced by Kennedy's majority opinion in Brown v. Plata, the landmark prison overcrowding case decided by a 5-4 margin last week.
"He has a fundamental respect and believes the Constitution has fundamental respect for the individual," Kelso said. "It was not about criminal law. It was about human dignity."
Kennedy undoubtedly knows that U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco appointed Kelso to serve as receiver in charge of prison health care in January 2008.
Although Kelso is not mentioned by name, the Plata opinion repeatedly cites the receiver's work as it describes the crowding, degradation and death behind California's prison walls.
Among the details Kennedy cited: 54 men shared a single toilet; a mentally ill man was in a near-catatonic state and had soiled himself in a cagelike cell; an inmate complained of untreated pain for 17 months before finally succumbing to testicular cancer.
For his part, Kelso cited a passage in Plata that he called "vintage Kennedy." The line makes clear we all should care how felons are treated.
"As a consequence of their own actions, prisoners may be deprived of rights that are fundamental to liberty," Kennedy writes.
"Yet the law and the Constitution demand recognition of certain other rights. Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment."
It makes sense that Kennedy would take the lead in the prison case. Decades ago, before being appointed to the bench, Kennedy was a lawyer and lobbyist in Sacramento, as was his father.
Although Capitol politics have little resemblance to what he may remember, Kennedy writes with some authority about the dysfunctional politics here.
"California's Legislature has not been willing or able to allocate the resources necessary to meet this crisis absent a reduction in overcrowding," he wrote.
"There is no reason to believe it will begin to do so now, when the State of California is facing an unprecedented budgetary shortfall. Without a reduction in overcrowding, there will be no efficacious remedy for the unconstitutional care of the sick and mentally ill in California's prisons."
It was all too predictable that Republican politicians would engage in some serious fear mongering after the majority affirmed the three-judge panel's order requiring that California drastically reduce prison crowding.
Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway declared "innocent Californians could be at serious risk of becoming victims of crime." Several Republican pols piled on. They should know better. Kennedy is hardly a wild-eyed liberal. Those same politicians did not squawk last year when Kennedy sided with conservative justices who concluded there is a fundamental right to own guns, or when he penned the opinion opening the way for corporations to make unlimited campaign donations.
Kelso, himself a Republican, believes he had "zero influence" on the high court's decision. He never spoke with Kennedy about prisons or the case.
But perhaps the justice took some comfort knowing that his former law clerk had seen firsthand the conditions behind the prison walls, and had documented the dire situation.
Kelso was struck by Kennedy's final words on the matter: "The state shall implement the order without further delay."
With that sentence, Kennedy offers the state no out. He is not suggesting that officials comply with the order in due course, or in the fullness of time.
Kennedy has made clear there are no more appeals. Lawyers cannot save the politicians from making hard choices. The time for spinning is over. All that's left is to follow the law. None of it surprises Kelso.
Justice Antonin Scalia got worked up in his dissent to the majority decision affirming a lower court order that California reduce its prison population.
He writes that about 46,000 inmates would be "generously rewarded" by a release order. Of those freed, he write, "many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym." Nice turns of phrases, though they're not grounded in fact.
First, it's not clear there will be a release order. The state could cut inmate population by ceasing to send parole violators to state prison, as Gov. Jerry Brown proposes.
Scalia is operating on other outdated information. Officials removed weights from the prisons in 1997.