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Notwithstanding Federal Healthcare Receiver, California Prisoners Can Still Use State Habeas Corpus to Redress Medical Complaints

The California Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District, held that even though the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) was under the supervision of a court-appointed federal healthcare Receiver, state prisoners nonetheless retained the right under state law to seek individual redress from deficiencies in medical care. Prisoners raising such claims should file state habeas corpus petitions naming both the facility’s warden and the Receiver as respondents.

Jesus Estevez, a CDCR prisoner at Kern Valley State Prison, filed a habeas petition in Kern County Superior Court alleging a failure by medical staff to provide him with long-recommended spinal surgery and follow-up treatment. The petition was denied and Estevez, still proceeding pro se, petitioned the Court of Appeal.

After requesting several informal responses from both the prison warden and the federal Receiver as to the issues of jurisdiction, mootness following Estevez’s intervening surgery, and the interplay between the Receiver’s authority and the warden’s duty to provide health care to state prisoners, the Court determined that it had jurisdiction.

In their responses, both the warden and Receiver conceded that state courts had both statutory and constitutional jurisdiction to hear a habeas corpus petition regarding prison healthcare. They also argued, however, that the case was moot because Estevez had since received the back surgery he was seeking.

. The Court of Appeal noted that inadequacy of post-surgery follow-up care was still being raised by Estevez, and, because that actual controversy remained, the matter was not moot and an evidentiary hearing was warranted. Moreover, the appellate court found that the question of federal versus state liability in matters under the Receiver’s aegis was both novel and one of widespread importance to many other CDCR prisoners statewide. Therefore, Estevez’s petition was not mooted by his surgery.

Following a scholarly review of constitutional authority and case law precedent, the Court concluded that “It cannot be inferred, from a broad grant of general authority, that a receiver is permitted to override state law, absent the explicit direction, arrived at pursuant to procedures comporting with due process, of the appointing court.” Indeed, the Court of Appeal noted that state sovereignty, which is concurrent with that of the federal government, is subject only to limitations imposed by the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Looking to California’s Constitution, the Court cited Article I § 11, which reads, “The right to file a petition for writ of habeas corpus is guaranteed by the state Constitution and regulated by statute (Penal Code § 1473 et seq.).” Further, Article VI § 10 of the California Constitution “gives the state superior, appellate and Supreme courts original jurisdiction in habeas corpus proceedings.” Because the function of a habeas petition is to obtain discharge from unlawful restraint, “alleged violations of the Eighth Amendment arising from inadequate medical care may be brought to courts’ attention in California by means of a petition for writ of habeas corpus.”

Accordingly, the appellate court held that “despite the receivership, California courts retain jurisdiction over the state prison system in general and inmates’ claims of inadequate medical care in particular. It necessarily follows that, since the Receiver is now in charge of the California prison medical health care delivery system, California courts also have jurisdiction over him.”

Indeed, to hold otherwise, the Court of Appeals noted, would have the effect of suspending the writ of habeas corpus in California. The Court went on to opine that both the federal Receiver and the prison warden were necessary and proper parties to respond to such habeas petitions, since the Receiver controls the medical care while the warden controls the prisoner.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals granted the writ on August 14, 2008 and directed the Superior Court to vacate its earlier denial, hold an evidentiary hearing as to the need for ongoing medical care for Estevez, and enter further orders as appropriate. See: In re Estevez, 83 Cal.Rptr.3d 479 (Cal.App. 5 Dist., 2008), as modified on denial of rehearing.

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