The Supreme Court on Monday afternoon rejected a request from two inmates at high risk for complications from COVID-19 to reinstate an order by a federal district court that would require Texas prison officials to take basic safety precautions to combat the virus. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented from that ruling, penning an 11-page opinion – joined by Justice Elena Kagan – in which she worried that Monday’s order “will lead to further, needless suffering” at a prison where 20 inmates have already died as a result of the virus.
The request was filed by Laddy Valentine and Richard King, inmates at the Wallace Pack Unit, a geriatric prison in southeast Texas. Valentine is 69, King is 73, and both suffer from chronic health conditions – such as diabetes and high blood pressure – that put them at a higher risk for serious illness and death from the coronavirus. They went to federal court earlier this year, where they argued that the failure to protect them from the coronavirus violated the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
After an 18-day trial in July, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison agreed with Valentine and King. Ellison entered an order in September that required prison officials to take basic public health precautions to deal with the virus, such as regular cleaning, wearing masks, weekly testing, quarantining inmates who are waiting for test results, and contact tracing.
Prison officials appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which put Ellison’s order on hold until it could hear and decide the case. The court of appeals concluded that prison officials were likely to prevail – an important criterion for temporary relief – because the inmates should have used the prison’s internal grievance process before going to court.
Valentine and King came to the Supreme Court last month, asking the justices to restore Ellison’s order while the prison officials’ appeal proceeds. They told the justices that the 5th Circuit’s order was “dangerous” and “ignored the reality that” the prison’s internal grievance process is “a simple dead end” that is not capable of protecting inmates from the virus.
In a brief one-sentence order on Monday, the court denied Valentine and King’s request. In her dissent, Sotomayor stressed that the inmates in the Pack Unit “are some of the most vulnerable in the country.” Despite that risk, she continued, the inmates’ “COVID-related grievances were not treated differently from other grievances” and therefore “offered no realistic prospect of relief.” Moreover, Sotomayor added, although the number of COVID-19 cases has dropped in the prison, “the threat of a second outbreak is ‘ongoing’”; if the virus returns, it “can overtake a prison in a matter of weeks,” and it will be several weeks before the court of appeals hears oral argument in the inmates’ case – much less issues an opinion. By contrast, Sotomayor suggested, Ellison’s order “imposes only basic safety measures using reasonable, flexible terms.”
Sotomayor closed by noting that Valentine and King could return to the Supreme Court “if it becomes clear that the risks they face as a result of” prison officials’ conduct “are even graver than they already appear.” But because she “would not force them to wait until it may be too late,” she concluded, she dissented.
Monday’s order was the second time this year that the Supreme Court has declined to grant emergency relief to inmates at the Pack Unit. This spring, at an earlier stage in the litigation before the 18-day trial, Ellison issued a preliminary order requiring prison officials to put in place better COVID-19 safety measures. The 5th Circuit blocked that order from going into effect, and on May 14, the Supreme Court declined to reinstate it.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.