One California inmate dies every eight days from inadequate medical care. In one case, a prisoner who experienced “recurrent severe abdominal pain and vomiting over a five week period” received no treatment until they eventually died. Moreover, lawsuits stretch back twenty years seeking to remedy these unconstitutional conditions — until a federal court finally ordered the state to reduce its prison population. That order is now before the Supreme Court.
Against this backdrop, Justice Sonia Sotomayor confronted California’s attorney with some of the more horrific stories from California’s unconstitutional prison system, and received a mocking response from fellow Justice Antonin Scalia:
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Well, the best interest of the State of California, isn’t it to deliver adequate constitutional care to the people that it incarcerates? That’s a constitutional obligation.
MR. PHILLIPS: Absolutely. And California recognizes that.
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: So when are you going to get to that? When are you going to avoid the needless deaths that were reported in this record? When are you going to avoid or get around people sitting in their feces for days in a dazed state? When are you going to get to a point where you are going to deliver care that is going to be adequate?
JUSTICE SCALIA: Don’t be rhetorical.
While Scalia’s remark was ostensibly directed at California’s attorney, it was clearly intended to slight Sotomayor. Earlier in the proceeding, Sotomayor had warned the attorney to “slow down from the rhetoric” when he repeatedly characterized the lower court’s action as “extraordinary.” So Scalia is suggesting that Sotomayor also crossed an inappropriate rhetorical line when she expressed concern for human beings left helpless in a pile of their own excrement.
One of the most disgusting displays of the last two years has been right-wing lawmakers demanding that all judges must purge themselves of the capacity to identify with and understand another’s situation. It is nothing less than terrifying that a member of the Supreme Court appears to meet their standard.