Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Hartman v. California Dep't of Corrections (9th Cir. - Feb. 19, 2013)

Sometimes I think that prisoners are just messing with us.  And I use the term "messing" even though a different word more immediately comes to mind.

Which maybe explains this case.  In which the Ninth Circuit has to decide whether it's constitutional for the California Department of Corrections to rely upon volunteer and part-time chaplains to serve the religious needs of Wiccan inmates rather than hire a paid, full-time Wiccan chaplain.

You might initially think that I've erroneously linked to a fictional legal dispute from the Onion.  But no.  Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

Nor, I might add, is this a nutty pro se action filed by an incarcerated prisoner.  Nope.  Not only is there a lawyer on the side of the Wiccans, but an entire law firm.  Jones Day.

Which makes me initially think that Jones Day might be messing with us as well.

My initial reaction to the lawsuit was the same as most people's.  "Seriously?"  I mean, sure, I get that prisons have to accommodate religious preferences.  But my strong sense is that it's okay to rely upon part-time chaplains rather than full-time ones.  Might not be perfect.  But just fine.

The district court thought so as well.  And, on that basis, dismissed the lawsuit.

But the Ninth Circuit reverses.  At least in part.

The panel does a pretty good job of explaining why.  You see, at least allegedly, there are more Wiccans at the Central California Women's Facility than there are Jews.  Or Muslims.  Or even Catholics.

(This might say something about the Wiccan religion, I might add, but I leave more complete elaboration upon that thought for another time.  Apparently we're still putting lots of witches in prison.)

This might otherwise just be a statistical footnote.  But plaintiffs say it's a constitutional violation of the Establishment Clause since the prison provides full-time, paid chaplains for adherents to those (allegedly) less numerous, more "mainstream" religions, but marginalizes Wiccans with volunteers and part-timers.

The Ninth Circuit says that if that's true -- and we're just deciding the case at the pleading stage -- that might perhaps be a constitutional violation.  You can see why.  Especially if, as is alleged, the prison has no objective criteria for deciding which particular religious groups get full-time chaplains.

Reading between the lines, I think the panel is pretty skeptical about whether what the plaintiffs allege is the case is actually true.  In particular, in the end, I think the lawsuit might well be dismissed because while there may be more Wiccans at this particular prison -- hereinafter, "Witch Central" -- than Jews and/or Muslims, overall, that's not likely the case, and the prison could constitutionally decide to employ full-time chaplains only for those religions that have more numerous adherents on the whole.

But that's for a later stage.  The merits.  The Ninth Circuit decides that, for now, the Wiccans get to have their day in court.

So let the Wiccans rejoice.  They get a nice present from the Ninth Circuit just three short weeks after that great Wiccan holiday, Imbolc.

Good times.