Visiting judge rejects city’s contempt allegation; appoints special master in prison closure dispute

Visiting Judge Robert Moody (retired from Monterey County, California) acknowledged the Friday, Feb. 25 hearing in Lassen Superior Court was in fact a contempt of court hearing as the city of Susanville alleges the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had violated a restraining order by launching a California Environmental Quality Act review of the proposed closure of the California Correctional Center in Susanville. The city argues the CEQA review is required by law, and it should have completed before the decision to close CCC had been made instead of after a local judge had ordered a halt to any activities that might further the prison’s closure.

On Aug. 2, 2021, Lassen County Superior Court Judge Mark Nareau found merit in the city’s argument and issued a temporary restraining order in which, “Respondents and each of them (the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, California Governor Gavin Newsom and Secretary of CDCR Kathleen Allison) are hereby enjoined and restrained from performing any acts to further the closure of California Correctional Center pending hearing and further order of this court.”

According to Nareau’s order, “It does not appear to the court that the necessary requirements imposed upon the executive branch in facilitating the decision to close the California Correctional Center have been complied with. The executive branch of the government of the state of California, like the citizens it serves, must comply with the law.”

In the proceeding via Zoom, Moody said he had reviewed all the court documents and filings and the city faced “a tough hill to climb” in pressing the restraining order issue, and “The city has not been able to ring the bell” on the merits of its order to show cause.

City Attorney Margaret Long said while the city might not have been able to meet the standard of proof for the TRO, the issue is really much larger. She said if CDCR wants to close CCC it has to do so in a way that follows the procedures established in state law.

Moody agreed, adding there are legal issues on both sides and that both sides have legal rights that go beyond the closure of CCC.

“All parties have the right to view the process as fair,” Moody said. “It needs to be done in a way the public can respect. The process needs to be overseen by the court.”

But having said that, Moody also said he expects the complicated case could present a difficult and somewhat contentious process.

In that regard, Moody said he will appoint a special master to work through some of the issues and help the court determine its proper course. Moody said he had a special master in mind and scheduled the next court hearing for 10 a.m. March 14.

Long said the city understands the judge’s decision to bring in the special master and added the city’s ultimate goal is the resolution of the matter.

So what’s a special master?
According to Cornell Law, “A special master is appointed by a court to carry out some sort of action on its behalf. Theoretically, a special master is distinguished from a master. A master’s function is essentially investigative, compiling evidence or documents to inform some future action by the court, whereas a special master carries out some direct action on the part of the court. It appears, however, that the special master designation is often used for people doing purely investigative work, and that the simple master designation is falling out of use.”

Closure of High Desert State Prison, too?
During the proceeding, the judge commented on the circumstances regarding the proposed closure of CCC such as the declines in the number of inmates and staff, and he mentioned that Susanville’s other state prison, High Desert State Prison faces similar issues.

The judge said “statewide attention” had been drawn in the effort to “close these two facilities,” but he did not name the two facilities to which he referred.

Local activists who oppose the closure of CCC said the judge’s comments “raised their eyebrows,” but they have not heard anything about CDCR wanting to close HDSP. CDCR has not released any information regarding that possible closure, and has written HDSP will continue to operate after CCC closes.

During the proceeding, Carol Boyd, an attorney for CDCR, responded to the judge’s comments and acknowledged there are problems with inmates and staff at HDSP as well, but she added they weren’t as severe as those at CCC.