Monday, October 05, 2015

Norsworthy v. Beard (9th Cir. - Oct. 5, 2015)

The popular press will occasionally refer to litigation in which the California Department of Corrections has been ordered to provide a prisoner with gender reassignment surgery.  (For example, here's the Fox News version of the story.)

The next time one of your friends mentions this case, you can supplement this discussion with a note that the case has at this point been dismissed as moot.  Since the prisoner at issue has been released on parole.

There's still a lingering question about whether the underlying opinion -- a nonprecedential one by the district court -- should technically be vacated as well (in light of the subsequent mootness).  Judge Callahan believes the answer is clearly "yes" since the defendants had nothing to do with the grant of parole:  "The process by which the Parole Board determined that Ms. Norsworthy’s confinement was no longer required and the Governor’s review of that decision are set forth fully in the documents that have been submitted to the Court. There is no real doubt that the Parole Board and the Governor are not subject to or responsible to the CDCR."

Judges Reinhardt and Tashima, by contrast, are not as convinced of this fact as Judge Callahan.  In a lengthy footnote, they find it "interesting" (to say the least) that the case just-so-happened to be made moot the day before oral argument.  Here's what they say in a lengthy footnote:

"[A]lthough our dissenting colleague may be willing to accept the defendants’ assertions regarding the independence ofthe parole review process, we are notso convinced. Before Norsworthy filed this suit, a panel of the parole board had on several prior occasions denied her parole. It last did so in March 2013 for a three-year term, meaning that Norsworthy’s next parole hearing should in the ordinary course have come in March 2016. Four months after Norsworthy filed this suit in February 2014, however, the parole board decided to advance the date of her next parole hearing. That hearing was then delayed and, in the meantime, the district court granted the motion for a preliminary injunction in April 2015. A little over a month later, Norsworthy finally had a parole hearing, at which point a parole board panel approved her application.

By statute, both the full parole review board and governor can review a panel decision within a certain time. See Cal. Penal Code §§ 3041, 3041.2. Here, if both the full parole board and governor had let these statutory periods lapse without action, the parole determination would have become final on October 18, 2015. As it happened, this court asked the parties on July 20 to provide an update regarding Norsworthy’s parole and address whether the parole board panel’s decision mooted the case. In their response, defendants informed us for the first time that the full parole board had at some point approved the panel’s decision and that defendants “anticipate[d]” a final decision from the governor by August 7 that, if favorable to Norsworthy, would insure that she would “be released from prison in August.” The governor did indeed approve Norsworthy’s parole on August 7. Nevertheless, Norsworthy argued that oral argument should proceed as scheduled on August 13 because CDCR planned to release her on August 14, meaning that she would still be incarcerated on the date of oral argument. Defendants reply—filed on August 12, the eve of oral argument—informed us that Norsworthy had in fact been released that very morning. The reply did not divulge why Norsworthy’s release date had changed. . . .

[T]hese coincidences indicate that there is at least some chance that defendants influenced the parole process."

Judge Callahan, by contrast, says that this claim -- and the majority's decision to remand the case to the district court to see if defendants in fact influenced the parole process -- "approaches sophistry".

Regardless, the case is moot, and Ms. Norsworthy will not have the state pay for her reassignment surgery.  At least if she stays out of prison.

One more thing.  It's a sign of the times that both the majority and the dissent expressly refer to the petitioner as a woman.  Because whether you're sympathetic to her claims or not, at this point in our culture, it's a sign of respect to refer to someone by their identified gender.

On that, as with the fact that the present case is moot, everyone on the panel agrees.