The Supreme Court’s denial of a request from Texas inmates in a geriatric prison in Texas to allow further protections from COVID-19 could signal a more assertive defense of state and local officials’ prerogatives in the midst of a pandemic.
But that will be tested in other cases turning on religious liberties, says a USA Today commentator.
The Texas prison case continues a pattern of high court actions in which it has refused to second-guess how state officials combat the pandemic, writes Richard Wolf in USA Today.
But Wolf also notes that the justices face another test in a case where they are being asked to challenge New York State’s COVID-19 restrictions at churches and synagogues.
“The religion case will reveal whether the court’s beefed-up conservative majority is finally ready to assert itself,” Wolf wrote.
The Texas prison ruling was unsigned, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, dissented, arguing that the prisoners face “severe risks of serious illness and death from COVID-19, but are unable to take even the most basic precautions against the virus, ” CNN reports.
Sotomayor added, “The inmates can do nothing but wait for the virus to take its toll,” noting that 20 lives have already been lost. She said she feared they will be subject to “further, needless suffering.”
Lawyers for Laddy Valentine and Richard King told the justices that the elderly inmates in a Grimes County geriatric prison filed suit because of officials “deliberately indifferent response” to the spread of COVID-19, alleging that current conditions resulted in “intolerable and patently unconstitutional prison conditions.”
A district court ruled in their favor, specifying “reasonable actions” the prison could take based in part on trial testimony from public health experts. A federal appeals court put that opinion on hold.
Lawyers for the inmates asked the Supreme Court to lift the hold.
Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins argued that the prison has taken precautions including “repeated mass testing of inmates” and that the number of infections at the Pack Unit has “fallen dramatically.” Hawkins said the district court lacked the power to enter an injunction because inmates had failed to exhaust available internal avenues for relief.
The high court earlier this year refused to lift restrictions on churches in California and Nevada Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the four liberal justices. But since then Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and was succeeded by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, giving conservatives a 6-3 majority.
That could be enough to topple New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s church-related restrictions, which limit attendance to 10 or 25 worshipers in areas where COVID-19 is most prevalent, Wolf wrote in USA Today
The New York restrictions have been challenged by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel, an Orthodox Jewish organization.