California Private Prison Ban Ruled Unconstitutional in Federal Court

The 9th Circuit Court of appeals says California’s ban on private prisons and immigrant detention centers breaks federal law

A federal court ruled Monday that California’s Assembly Bill 32, which bans private prisons and immigrant detention centers, is unconstitutional.

The 11-member panel from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the 2019 bill violates the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, which prohibits states from overruling federal laws.

The case began when government contractor the GEO Group and the federal government sued California over AB32. GEO, who had only recently signed 15-year contracts worth $6.5 billion, stated the bill would cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual revenue.

As the Los Angeles Times reports Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen found that AB32 “would override the federal government’s decision, pursuant to discretion conferred by Congress, to use private contractors to run its immigration detention centers. California can not exert this level of control.”

Chief Justice Mary H. Murguia, along with two other judges disagreed, asserting that AB32 is valid because the bill does not directly regulate or discriminate against the federal government.

The office of California Attorney General Rob Bonta, who authored the bill as an assemblyman, said it was “deeply disappointed” with the outcome:

“Assembly Bill 32 was enacted to protect the health and welfare of Californians and recognized the federal government’s own documented concerns with for-profit, private prisons and detention facilities.”

While the 9th Circuit did not explicitly direct the lower court to stop the state law from being enforced, it ordered the lower court to reconsider the request based on the analysis of the Supremacy Clause and public interest, among other things.

Jackie Gonzales, Immigrant Defense Advocates’ policy director, believes any analysis done correctly would rule in favor of the state’s ban, telling the Times, “There’s no doubt that a law that puts the lives and humanity of people over profits… is in the public interest.”

In written arguments submitted for the case, immigrant advocates accused the GEO Group and other private prisons of providing substandard medical care to detainees living in poor conditions.

Gov. Gavin Newson, who signed the bill into law in October 2019, continues to defend it, saying, “For-profit, private prisons contribute to over-incarceration and do not reflect California values.” The governor’s office also said it was going “to evaluate next steps.”

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