Arizona Argues At 9th Circuit To Overturn Prison Health Care Fine

By Jimmy Jenkins, Steve Goldstein
Published: Tuesday, September 24, 2019 - 2:34pm
Updated: Wednesday, September 25, 2019 - 4:45pm

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James R. Browning U.S. Court of Appeals Building
Jimmy Jenkins/KJZZ
James R. Browning U.S. Court of Appeals Building in San Francisco, California.

In 2018, a Federal judge fined Arizona $1.4 million for poor health care conditions in Arizona prisons.

The judge had warned the state after years of litigating the Parsons v. Ryan prison health care settlement, that such fines were imminent if the Department of Corrections kept failing basic performance benchmarks.

In oral arguments before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday, the state challenged the validity of that fine and asked a three judge panel to throw it out.

Attorney Timothy Berg didn’t get very far into his opening remarks for the state before Judge Consuelo Callahan cut him off.

“OK, so we’ve already worn out one magistrate judge and now we’re on to Judge Silver and then we’re back with us," Callahan said. "So, how many more times do we get to see everyone?”

Judge Callahan was referencing a now five-year-old settlement in which the state and inmates agreed to improve prison health care conditions.

→ Inmates Call For Federal Takeover Of Arizona Prison Health Care System

In its most recent appeal of that process, Berg explained Arizona believes a contempt fine levied by the district court in 2018 was beyond the judge’s authority.

“The stipulation that the parties entered into was an agreement," Berg said. "It was not a consent decree, it was not a court order, and therefore contempt is not an option that’s available to enforce it.”

Attorney Corene Kendrick, arguing on behalf of the people in Arizona prisons, said the appeal boils down to one question: “Does the district court have the power to ensure a party complies with a court approved settlement agreement and court orders?”

Kendrick said it does, and the fine should stand.

The three judge panel will now rule on the validity of the fine, as well an appeal from the state challenging legal fees.

A recent tally from the Arizona Department of Corrections shows the state has paid more than $19 million to litigate the Parsons settlement.

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