A divided Supreme Court on Wednesday lifted a lower court order that required increased Covid-related safety measures in an Orange County, California, jail while the appeals process plays out.
The vote was 5-4 and the four liberals on the court dissented. The order marks the latest example of the justices ruling against plaintiffs seeking relief during the pandemic. The court has also been hesitant to ease voting rules because of Covid.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote that the lower court’s requirements for increased safety were not “remarkable,” and she noted that recently the jail reported 15 new cases in a single week. She said that the jail houses a population of more than 3,000 pretrial detainees and at the time the lower court issued its injunction, the jail witnessed an increase of more than 300 cases in a little over a month.
The order is a victory for Orange County, whose lawyers argued that while there is “no doubt” that there are “significant and dangerous outbreaks” in some prisons and jails across the country, their jail is “not one of them.” The county argued that the jail had already moved to release “approximately 53% of inmates” to increase social distancing, and that the lower court’s order “hamstrings” the sheriff’s office from an “effective and fluid” response.
“The order places staff and inmates at a higher risk by requiring actions not endorsed by the CDC,” county lawyers argued.
Among other things, the lower court had ordered the jail to take the temperature of inmates daily, along with interviewing them about jail conditions.
It is a loss for now for the inmates, represented by Cassandra Stubbs of the ACLU. Stubbs argued that prior to the district court’s injunction, the county was “shuffling inmates around the jail in defiance of Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines,” leaving them “packed into dayrooms sharing the same air and bathrooms without social distancing.” Stubbs said her clients were provided with “watered-down disinfectant and make-shift masks made from blood-stained sheets.”
At the time of the order 369 detainees had tested positive.
This story has been updated.