A three-judge federal court on Thursday denied the state's motion to soften a mandate that California's prison inmate population must be reduced by the end of the year to 137.5 percent of the design capacity of its 33 adult prisons.
Since the motion was filed in early January, Gov. Jerry Brown and Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard have said that, if their request was denied, they would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The three judges said in a 71-page order that if Brown and his top corrections officials do not comply with Thursday's order, they would be held in contempt "individually and collectively."
They wrote that they make such a threat reluctantly, "but with determination that defendants will not be allowed to continue to violate the requirements of the Constitution of the United States."
The ruling was the second major setback in less than a week for the Brown administration's all-out push to get prison health care out from under control of the federal judiciary.
In a stinging rebuke of that effort April 5, Sacramento U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton not only denied the state's motion to terminate his oversight of prison mental health care, he struck down part of the state's evidence in support of the motion, finding Brown, corrections officials and their lawyers from the Attorney General's Office stooped to unethical tactics.
He said prison mental health care is still woefully short of adequate when measured against constitutional requirements.
Karlton also sits on the specially-convened three-judge court that has the population issue before it, along with 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt and U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson of San Francisco.
That panel first ordered the population reduction in 2009, finding after a non-jury trial that overcrowding was the primary reason for unconstitutional health care in the prison system.
An appeal of that order to the Supreme Court went against the state in 2011.
The state's January motion says it has slashed inmate population as much as it can without risking the public's safety.
The Brown administration is adamant that, even though it has another 9,000 inmates to go before the population has sunk to the level required by the court, prison health care is no longer in violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and it can be maintained that way without further reduction.