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State Supreme Court upholds governor’s limited prison releases

OLYMPIA – The Washington Supreme Court, which meets in the Temple of Justice on the Capitol Campus, explained Thursday its April ruling that refused to order the Department of Corrections to release more inmates to protect them from COVID-19.  (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – A governor has broad powers during an emergency that includes deciding whether to release inmates from prisons and how many should be released, the Washington Supreme Court said Thursday.

In another ruling that upheld Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency rules, a sharply divided court explained why it refused to intervene this spring in the state’s efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 in prisons by releasing certain inmates.

A federal judge in Spokane last week refused a request from a Chelan County water park to override an emergency rule that required it to shut down.

On Thursday, the state’s highest court refused the requests of five inmates not covered by the emergency rules, who had argued they had medical conditions or other factors that should have allowed them and others like them to be released as protection from the virus. The majority declined to issue a writ of mandamus, a rare court order that would tell the governor what to do.

“Mandamus is not the answer for every emergency, and it cannot deliver the relief (the inmates) seek here,” Chief Justice Debra Stephens wrote in her majority opinion. “Our job is to say what the law is, not to dictate how another branch (of government) should do its job.”

That writ can only be used when the governor or other member of the executive branch fails to do something the law requires. But Washington law gives a governor broad discretionary powers during an emergency and Inslee has exercised those powers dozens of times recently, she wrote.

“Most recently here, the governor has taken steps to accelerate the release of 950 nonviolent inmates who were set to be released this summer,” Stephens wrote.

While the inmates who filed for the writ claimed this does not go far enough, that’s up to the governor to decide and the court can’t dictate otherwise, she wrote. Under their request, as many as 11,000 of the 13,000 people incarcerated in the state system could have been released.

“While we do not minimize the serious risks COVID-19 poses to Washington’s incarcerated population, we will not use this emergency as an occasion to wield powers that exceed our constitutional authority,” Stephens wrote.

In a dissent, Justice Stephen Gonzalez argued the court has a responsibility to determine whether individual rights were being violated by the Department of Corrections plan to control the virus. It shouldn’t use the separation of powers doctrine to avoid holding government accountable, he wrote.

Even during a state of emergency, “it remains the judicial function to declare unconstitutional that which transgresses the rights of individuals in our state,” Gonzalez wrote. Rather than dismissing the request for a writ of mandamus, the court should have allowed the inmates time to provide more information about how the department’s orders on the pandemic were affecting prisoners.

Both Gonzalez and Stephens noted that even though the minority dissented on dismissing the writ of mandamus in April, those four justices weren’t calling for the release of some 11,000 inmates, including large numbers of violent offenders. A social media campaign made such claims, which included images of the four dissenters in “Wanted” posters and which generated harassment and threats against them, Gonzalez wrote.

“Because of these threats, I feel it is important to take the extraordinary step of making clear that the information circulated was false, and no justice would have ordered such relief that day,” he wrote.