In court papers filed Monday night and early Tuesday morning, Gov. Jerry Brown's administration asked the three-judge panel to set aside its August 2009 order, saying "continued enforcement of the order is unfair, unnecessary and illegal."
"In the years since the court issued the current population cap order, the state has dramatically reduced the prison population, significantly increased capacity through construction and implemented myriad improvements that transformed the medical and mental health care systems," state officials wrote.
Reviving a legal showdown that already has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Brown said he has launched the legal maneuver because the state's prison system should no longer be under court control. He warned that remaining under the court orders could threaten public safety, cost the cash-strapped state billions of dollars more and "interfere with California's independent right to determine its own criminal justice laws."
The governor also vowed to press to the Supreme Court the state's argument that it has done enough to reform its prisons.
"I'm trying to find a balance point, a middle path that spends the right amount of money to achieve a decent amount of public safety," the governor said.
"We can't pour more and more money down the rat hole of incarceration. We have to spend as much as we need but no more and I think we've hit that point."
Prisoner rights lawyers immediately called the maneuver "frivolous" and the "latest in a long line of efforts" to avoid a court order that has been "upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court."
The inmates' attorneys plan to contest the request and will argue that health care remains dismal in California's prisons as a result of continuing overcrowding.
"The problem is that rather than fixing the problems, the state is just playing a litigation game," said Rebekah Evenson, a staff attorney with the Prison Law Office.
After extensive hearings in 2008 and 2009, the three-judge panel found that California's prisons were so overcrowded that they violated the constitutional rights of the prisoners by failing to provide adequate mental health and medical care for inmate population that at times exceeded 160,000.
Federal Judges Thelton Henderson, Lawrence Karlton and Stephen Reinhardt found the medical care so poor that inmates were regularly dying as a result.
The court ordered the state to reduce the inmate population to 137 percent of capacity within two years, a ruling later upheld by the Supreme Court. That would force the state to slash the number of inmates in its 33 prisons to about 110,00 by this June, and California is about 10,000 inmates away from that target. The judges have previously rejected requests to raise the inmate population cap.
State officials say they've reduced the prison population by 26,000 inmates since October 2011, when the governor's realignment plan went into effect, shifting many low-level offenders, such as probation violators, to county jails, and by more than 36,000 inmates since lawyers on both sides presented their original arguments in 2008. Prison reports show the inmate population at its lowest level since May 1995.
At the same time, state officials say they've established a health care system "with superior care that far exceeds the minimum requirements of the Constitution."
As of two weeks ago, the prisons remained at 149 percent of its capacity, despite the reduction in the overall inmate population. But in court papers, state officials maintain they have spent hundreds of millions of dollars fixing the problems, from an $840 million prison health facility in Stockton set to open in July to a $29.5 million treatment center at Salinas Valley State Prison.
The Brown administration stresses that Jeffrey Beard, the new director of state prisons, has found the inmates now receive adequate medical and mental health care. Beard, former head of Pennsylvania's prison system, testified as an expert on the inmates' side earlier in the legal battle.
"I'm in favor of the governor's request to get the fedral courts to release this case ... California has been for the last couple of years in the middle of the other states when it comes to all the different categories, like medical care incidents in the jail," said Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills..
San Francisco U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, one of the three judges on the federal court panel, said he has met numerous times with Brown in the past year to discuss ways to settle the prison case.
Henderson did not reveal specifics, other than to say the state was making progress but areas of disagreement with the governor remained.
Staff writer Neil Nisperos contributed to this report.