U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller will inherit the bitter, 24-year-old litigation over the quality of care for mentally ill inmates in California’s prisons when U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton retires later this year.
She will also assume Karlton’s seat on a specially convened, three-judge court that ordered a reduction of the prison system’s inmate population almost five years ago and is now overseeing that contentious process.
U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr., chief judge of the Eastern District of California, will reassign Coleman v. Brown, the lawsuit initiated in Sacramento federal court in 1990 that became a class action on behalf of all seriously mentally ill inmates, to Mueller after Karlton leaves the bench. Mentally ill inmates account for slightly more than 28 percent of the approximately 117,000 inmates now in the state’s 34 adult prisons.
The three-judge court, appointed by Mary M. Schroeder, then chief judge of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, presided over a trial in 2009. The panel ruled that prison overcrowding was the primary cause of inadequate mental and medical care for inmates, which has sunk to a dangerous and unconstitutional low. The judges ordered a drastic cut in the inmate population, which is continuing. The U.S. Supreme Court has turned back two challenges by the state to the order.
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By virtue of Karlton’s control of mental health care of inmates through a special master he appointed in the Coleman case, he is one of those on the three-judge court. The others are U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson of San Francisco, who presides over Plata v. Brown, a class action on behalf of medically ill inmates, and who controls their care through a receiver he appointed; and 9th Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt.
On Friday, an order from 9th Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski was filed in the Coleman and Plata cases appointing Mueller to the three-judge court as of Sept. 1. Karlton is due to go on inactive status Oct. 1.
Karlton, 78, was appointed to the lifetime district judgeship by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. He has presided over two other class actions related to California paroles for adults and juveniles, as well as a national class action on behalf of immigrants eligible for status adjustment under a 1980s amnesty program.
Mueller, 56, a former member of the Sacramento City Council, was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010. Before that, she spent seven years as a U.S. magistrate judge.