In a high-stakes bid to wrest control of California's prison system from federal oversight, opposing lawyers for the state and for 33,000 inmates sparred Wednesday over whether the state violated legal ethics by interviewing mentally ill prisoners without the knowledge of their attorneys.
The issue, which an angry federal judge said could be viewed as a "profound ethical violation," now hovers over the long-running case and could determine within days whether Gov. Jerry Brown succeeds in his bid to regain control of the prison's mental health care system.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton, in a hearing that lasted roughly 90 minutes and exposed what he said are serious transgressions by state penal authorities, continually pondered and mused aloud about how he should proceed.
The law mandates he must rule by April 7 in the matter.
Attorneys for the inmates, who insist that conditions in the prisons still are woefully inadequate and contribute to high suicide rates, contend the state's actions in preparing a motion to terminate Karlton's hold on inmate mental health care, are so unethical that Karlton should throw out the state's evidence in support of the motion.
At issue are a series of tours and interviews experts hired by the state conducted at numerous prisons without first notifying the inmates' lawyers their clients were being contacted by the other side. The lawyers describe the sessions as being conducted in secret despite the legal requirement that they be present for all those tours and interviews.
"They interviewed our mentally ill clients without our knowledge about the case and then they used the evidence (to buttress their claims that conditions in the prisons have improved)," Don Specter, head of the Prison Law Office, told reporters after the hearing.
"They didn't really explain to the mentally ill clients what the purpose of the interviews were, so the inmates had no idea who they were speaking to, they had no idea for the reason."
Those interviews and the 50 expert declarations based on them that were filed with the court by the state now are at the heart of a heated dispute over whether California has made enough progress in improving access to mental health care at a constitutional level inside its prisons.
The inmate attorneys want the declarations thrown out, a move that would cripple the state's efforts in court to rid its self of the 23-year-old class action.
Jeffrey Beard, the newly appointed secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, sat through the hearing Wednesday and told reporters afterward that state officials made no effort to hide what they were doing from the inmates' attorneys.
"There was no intention to hide anything," Beard said. "In fact, when you go into a prison, there are no secrets in jail.
"The very first prison that someone goes in, everyone knows they're there."
Beard added that he remains optimistic Karlton will consider the expert testimony to remain in the case as credible evidence. The experts' declarations describe improvements the state has made in mental health care, and are the underpinning for the argument that the state can now handle it without court supervision.
But Karlton made it clear during the hearing that he is deeply troubled by the dilemma he finds himself in over a case that was first filed in 1990.
"I think this is a serious matter, a very serious matter," Karlton told Deputy Attorney General Patrick McKinney, who was arguing for the state.
Karlton acknowledged that the state has made tremendous progress in reforming the horrific overcrowded conditions that compromised its ability to provide basic mental health and medical care to the inmates and led to a U.S. Supreme Court endorsement of a 2009 court-ordered plan to reduce inmate population to 137.5 percent of design capacity by the end of this year.
Brown's administration contends that it has done enough to improve conditions, and McKinney noted that the state now spends $400 million annually on mental health care for inmates.
"What we've seen year to year is the system just getting better," McKinney said.
But Michael Bien, the lead attorney for the inmates, said clinical and custodial staffing problems still exist at some institutions, depriving inmates of acceptable treatment by psychiatrists or other mental health care providers.
He added that he and his fellow attorneys have no way of knowing which inmates were interviewed by the state's experts, when the interviews took place, or what their clients told the experts.
"Here we have a mess," Bien said. "I don't know what records they saw either.
"They haven't shared what they saw."