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Faced with a decision about investigating the governor’s office just weeks before Election Day, Senior U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson sensed the political weight on his 72-year-old shoulders. “This case takes us into the political thicket in ways that they didn’t teach me in judge’s school,” Henderson said at a hearing Thursday. The pressure has been building since a court-appointed special master reported earlier this summer that the governor’s staff � principally chief of staff Susan Kennedy � were blocking state prison reform because of ties to the guards’ union. The special master, John Hagar, asked Henderson to convene a hearing to probe this behavior. So either way, Henderson’s course of action would be significant for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s re-election campaign. By postponing a decision instead of ruling from the bench, the judge effectively let Schwarzenegger off the hook: plaintiff lawyer Donald Specter said it is now “very unlikely” that a hearing will take place before the election. “Whatever my ruling, it’s just important that there be no backsliding on the [ongoing reforms],” Henderson said, adding that he hopes to have a ruling in the next few weeks. Shartsis Friese name partner Arthur Shartsis, who was retained three weeks ago to represent Schwarzenegger � alongside lawyers for the attorney general and attorneys advocating for the prison guards union � urged the judge Wednesday not to launch a probe. Shartsis offered to submit regular progress reports on Schwarzenegger’s behalf to enhance communication with the court. “The governor told me directly that he is as committed to prison reform as he has ever been,” Shartsis said. Calling Shartsis’ offer an “empty vessel,” Specter countered that Schwarzenegger hasn’t lived up to his promise to take action on prison reform. “I’ve been waiting for ‘Action, Action, Action’ for a long time,” Specter said, mimicking a campaign slogan from Schwarzenegger’s first run for governor. On Wednesday, Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the state prison system, allowing him to transfer thousands of inmates to private, out-of-state prisons to alleviate overcrowding in California correctional facilities. And Specter jumped on it, arguing that the declaration was proof the prison problem is worse than ever. Shartsis, however, called it “sound and solid evidence” that Schwarzenegger is committed to reform. The rhetoric was nothing new for Henderson. He has been overseeing state prison reforms for the last 11 years, ever since he arrived at the conclusion that “a code of silence existed in full bloom” at the Pelican Bay prison facility, where guards routinely interfered with investigations about misuse of force. In addition to the Schwarzenegger probe under consideration, Henderson agreed Thursday to weigh a request from plaintiff lawyers to make prison guards wait several hours or more before notifying them of a prisoner’s complaint. Steven Fama, an attorney at San Quentin’s Prison Law Office, said immediate notification creates a chilling effect for prisoners and enables guards to perpetuate a code of silence during misconduct investigations. Ronald Yank, a lawyer for the California Correctional Peace Officers’ Association, said with about 8,500 prisoner complaints a year, guards would have trouble recalling the sequence of events to adequately defend themselves without immediate notification. Henderson said Thursday the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has made some progress, and he is approaching the point where he can step aside from the case. “I know the thought makes a lot of people happy,” Henderson said, eyeing a roomful of state lawyers and prison officials.

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