Supreme Court Lifts Injunction on Jail Ordered to Implement COVID-19 Safety Measures

Without explanation the Supreme Court stayed a preliminary injunction requiring the Orange County California jail and jail officials to implement safety measures to protect inmates during the COVID–19 pandemic.

Justices Breyer and Kagan, without explaining their reasons, indicated they wouldn’t have granted the stay. Justice Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented from the Court’s decision to lift the injunction and explained why. 

According to the federal district court, which ordered the jail to implement the safety measures, as of May 26, 2020, the jail housed about 2,800 inmates (after reducing its population due to the pandemic), 488 were medically vulnerable, and 369 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19. A number of inmates sued the jail and jail officials claiming that its refusal to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Guidelines violated the Eighth Amendment.

The district court noted that the parties “vigorously debate” whether the jail had complied with the CDC Guidelines.  According to the court a “review of the evidence . . . suggests that although [the jail] may have a policy to comply with the CDC Guidelines, actual compliance has been piecemeal and inadequate.” Among other things, inmates claimed the jail didn’t give them adequate soap or personal hygiene supplies, didn’t fully quarantine new arrivals, failed to test all suspected cases, and hadn’t socially distanced bunks.

The district court issued an injunction against the jail concluding that “[r]ates of COVID‐19 infection at the Jail are skyrocketing, and [the inmates] have demonstrated a likelihood of establishing that [the jail has been] deliberately indifferent to that fact,” in violation of the Eighth Amendment. 

The Ninth Circuit twice refused to freeze the district court’s order. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court granted the jail’s request for a stay.

In its emergency motion the jail argued that it “has never been and simply cannot be the constitutional standard” that a jail and jail officials may be found to have acted with deliberate indifference when they have “largely implemented to the extent possible CDC Guidelines across the board.”

The inmates responded that the “core legal issue [the jail and jail officials] purport to present—whether the injunction should have ‘exceed[ed] the scope of CDC Guidelines,’—is a curious basis for review of a decision that was based on a finding that [the jail and jail officials] ‘are not complying meaningfully with the CDC Guidelines,’ and an injunction that tracks those Guidelines.”

In a brief opinion Justice Sotomayor explained that she and Justice Ginsburg would not temporarily lift the injunction in this case because it “presents none of the typical indicia warranting certiorari.”

Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg doubted the Supreme Court would ever hear this case on the merits because there is no circuit split. In their view, the district court didn’t endorse an injunction that went beyond CDC Guidelines, which would have generated a disagreement among the circuits.

Likewise, the dissenters concluded if the Supreme Court were to decide the case on the merits it would be unlikely to overturn the lower court decisions as they “applied well-established law to the particular facts of this case to conclude that the Jail knew of and disregarded an ‘excessive risk to inmate health or safety.’”

The jail couldn’t show the injunction caused it irreparable harm according to Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg because: “If the Jail is already doing everything required by the injunction, then what irreparable harm does the injunction pose? And if it is not, and the Jail misrepresented its actions under oath to the District Court, then why should the Jail benefit from this Court’s equitable discretion?”