The ruling found that the court does have some authority to compel the governor to remedy a violation of inmates’ constitutional rights.
A Colorado Court of Appeals has reversed a district judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit demanding that state Gov. Jared Polis release low-risk inmates to help curb the spread of coronavirus behind bars.
According to The Denver Post, the appeals court also determined that Gov. Polis—who sought to be dismissed from the suit—“is a proper defendant in this case,” because releasing inmates lies “within the Governor’s sound discretion and exclusive authority.”
However, the appeals court did find that it the judicial branch has the power to compel the governor to remedy a violation of prisoners’ constitutional rights, provided they do not issue the executive with specific instructions on how to best go about doing so.
“The court may order the Governor to remedy a constitutional violation without violating the separation of powers doctrine so long as the Governor retains the discretion to determine what particular remedy to implement,” the Court of Appeals said. “Speculation about a possible remedy is premature because no constitutional violation has been found. Thus if the court later finds that the current conditions of confinement in CDOC facilities violate Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, it may direct the Governor to remedy those conditions.”
While the bench did not offer an opinion as to whether it believes low-risk inmates should be released, it did send the case back to lower court for reconsideration.
The Sentinel notes that the lawsuit was first filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in March 2020, on behalf of a group of inmates who had medical conditions elevating their risk for contracting a severe form of novel coronavirus.
Although a majority of Colorado state inmates have since received coronavirus vaccinations, just over half of correctional officers, guards, and other staff have.
Conor Cahill, a representative for Polis’s office, said that the governor is weighing his options.
“In the meantime, we believe the Department of Corrections has put an enormous amount of effort protecting the people in its care during the COVID-19 pandemic, and has had remarkable success securing access to the vaccine,” Cahill said in a statement.
The lawsuit, adds The Sentinel, requests more benefits for inmates, including sending vulnerable, low-risk prisoners into home confinement. The complaint also requests that prisoners receive vaccines faster than the general populace, since incarcerated persons are unable to socially distance and cannot procure their own sanitary supplies.
Anna Holland Edwards, an attorney with the ALCU, told the Sentinel that the appeals court’s decision is significant, because it shows that Polis can be held accountable by the judiciary rather than being allowed to govern as a “king.”
This decision, suggests Holland Edwards, may further help organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union protect inmates’ rights in the future, both within and without the scope of the coronavirus pandemic.
Nevertheless, Holland Edwards did lament that the lawsuit’s revival comes after the worst of the pandemic had already passed.
“There’s a lot of suffering in those six months that could have been prevented by the trial court,” she told The Sentinel.