ABC News' Ariane de Vogue reports:
When Carter G. Phillips, one of the most respected Supreme Court lawyers in the country, took the podium last Tuesday he had to have known he’d face tough questions. But even an experienced practitioner like Phillips may not have been prepared for a bench so hot that 80 minutes were easily filled with questions coming from almost every seat causing a collective head swivel in the audience.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor at one point showed more passion than is usually seen in the ornate chamber.
Phillips was representing the State of California and arguing that a federal court order mandating the state to reduce its prison population by 40,000 over a two-year period was “extraordinary and unprecedented." He said the state was working to remedy the situation on its own with new construction and that the order would force the release of thousands of prisoners prematurely.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Sonia Sotomayor pounced. Ginsburg pointed out that one case challenging the conditions in the prison had been pending for 20 years. “How much longer do we have to wait?” she said.
Then it was Justice Sotomayor’s turn. She asked Phillips to give her “concrete details” of what California, mired in a fiscal crisis, could do on its own to alleviate the crowding. “Slow down from the rhetoric,” she warned Phillips.
Later she asked him: “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?”
For a half moment the chamber was quiet. Then Justice Scalia lightly scolded her tone. “Don’t be rhetorical” he said.
Former Justice Byron White once said that with the addition of each new member the chemistry of the whole Court changes. With four new justices in recent years the Court is settling into a new dynamic.
–Ariane de Vogue