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Federal Injunctions and State Laws

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Between private parties, a consent decree is simply a settlement of litigation that is entered as a judgment. When one party is a government, however, a consent decree can become something far more sinister. The present occupants of government office can bind the people of their jurisdiction to a court order that embodies policy decisions not required by federal law, possibly depriving the people of their sovereign right to change those policies in the future.

But possibly not. A decision of the Ninth Circuit today makes an important statement regarding the people's right of self-government and tersely reverses a particularly arrogant federal judge.
Soon after Arnold Schwarzenegger swept into the California Governor's office in a recall election, the newbies in his administration unwisely agreed to a settle a federal court case on parole revocation procedures with a decree going far beyond what federal law actually requires. Several years later, the people of California passed an initiative that trimmed back the procedures to something closer to federal requirements.

The imperious District Judge Lawrence Karlton was horrified that the Great Unwashed had dared to challenge his royal decree. His opinion may be found at 603 F.Supp.2d 1275.

Defendants' position that the Permanent Injunction should be altered because it includes provisions that are not strictly necessary to address the plaintiffs' due process violations holds no force. As the Supreme Court, Ninth Circuit, and other courts have recognized, a consent decree is not invalid simply because it contains elements that may be broader than those required by federal law.

That is a non sequitur. Just because the decree is not invalid for exceeding the requirements of federal law does not mean it should not be modified. In particular, a decree should be modified when it requires the executive to violate a new state law that is not in conflict with federal law.

CJLF's brief in Valdivia v. Schwarzenegger is here. The Ninth Circuit opinion is here. The portion of the opinion relevant to this post is Part II, and the court only needs four paragraphs to tell Judge Karlton he is not only wrong but clearly wrong.

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It is always refreshing when judges (here, the Ninth Circuit) recognize limits on the power of the judiciary (here, Judge Karlton), because it doesn't happen nearly often enough.

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