Recently, there was a painful reminder of the impact excessive litigation can have on taxpayers when an AP investigation revealed the state has spent more than $200 million on prison inmate lawsuits over the past 15 years.
The news comes on the heels of Governor Jerry Brown's announcement last month that he is seeking to end two federal court orders that capped the state's prison population and appointed a special master to oversee the state's efforts to ensure constitutionally adequate care for mentally ill inmates.
What started two decades ago as legitimate claims of serious constitutional violations in California's prison system has devolved into endless nitpicking by the court-appointed special master and inmates' lawyers, who have seen opportunities to get their "piece of the pie" as the governor put it, and made big money in the process.
While the litigation initially focused on Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment, the focus has turned to minor technicalities regardless of whether they relate to constitutional standards.
For example, according to the Brown administration's Jan. 7 motion to terminate the Coleman v. Brown case, over the past five years the special master has issued annual reports evaluating the state's performance on responsiveness to inmate exhibitionism, the number of blood tests ordered for inmates, prescribed psychotropic medication, pill-line wait times, prison officials' meeting attendance and prison staff's form completion skills.
Why would the special master do this? It would be difficult to state it more directly than the administration did in its response to the special master's report to the court last month:
"Perhaps the reason is because there is no incentive for the special master to be objective in this case. To date, the state has paid the special master, his Rhode Island law firm and his team of monitors and experts nearly $48 million. Further monitoring ensures that this revenue stream will continue."
Recognizing the special master was working off a different set of rules, last year the governor asked four nationally recognized experts to do their own evaluation, including an attorney who has testified multiple times on the plaintiffs' behalf in prisoner abuse cases. They found that the state's prison mental health care system now not only far exceeds constitutional requirements, but is actually a model for the rest of the nation.
Certainly there are issues that still need to be addressed in the prison system, but the state can now handle this on its own and shouldn't have to continue to pay millions of dollars to private lawyers for identifying each and every way that the prison system has fallen short of perfection.
There are times when lawsuits are necessary to correct an injustice, and there was a time when there were valid claims against the state for the inadequacies in its prison system. But the current arrangement is a reminder of the danger that can come with relying on private plaintiffs lawyers to enforce laws, and it is important for the Legislature to bear this in mind as it begins its new session. There is always a conflict of interest and when private plaintiffs lawyers can get paid for suing over minor technical violations, abuses inevitably occur.
This example shows that plaintiffs lawyers will pounce quickly when a line of income is made available and hold on tight. Sadly, it is taxpayers in this case and small and large business in many others that have to foot the bill.
Kimberly Stone is president of Civil Justice Association of California.
The Recorder welcomes submissions to Viewpoint. Contact Vitaly Gashpar at firstname.lastname@example.org.