The Colorado Court of Appeals overturned a Denver District Court decision to dismiss a lawsuit that called on Governor Jared Polis to release some inmates from state prisons due to coronavirus outbreaks among prisoners and the staff.
The ruling, dated Thursday, also concluded that Polis “is a good defendant in this case.”
In May 2020, a group of medically vulnerable prisoners sued the Colorado Department of Corrections and the governor alleging that the state had not done enough to protect them from the virus.
In November, prison authorities reached a legal deal with the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado promising to strengthen protections against coronaviruses.
In December, the ACLU, on behalf of the detainees, asked District Judge Kandace Gerdes to force the governor to release or transfer medically vulnerable incarcerated people who do not pose a threat to public safety in a petition for a preliminary injunction . On Christmas Eve, Gerdes excluded Polis from the class action lawsuit.
âColorado case law does not support the governor as an appropriate party to the lawsuit,â Gerdes said.
The governor’s office said in a statement Thursday that it was “reviewing the appeal court’s decision and considering next steps. In the meantime, we believe the Department of Corrections has gone to great lengths to protect those in its care during the COVID-19 pandemic and has achieved remarkable success in ensuring access to vaccines. Almost 70% of Coloradans and almost 70% of current detainees have received at least one dose of the vaccine. “
David Maxted, a lawyer cooperating with the ACLU in the lawsuit, welcomed the appeal court’s decision.
âUnfortunately, the lower court made the wrong decision and dismissed the case,â Maxted said. âThe Court of Appeal made it clear that Governor Polis is not above the law. The courts have the power to order an appealâ¦ and the governor is the right defendant.
The complainants had argued that Polis had the constitutional power to take action and release certain detainees.
“The court can order the governor to remedy a constitutional violation without violating the doctrine of the separation of powers as long as the governor retains the discretion to determine which particular remedy to pursue,” the Court of Appeal said. âSpeculation on a possible appeal is premature because no constitutional violation has been found. Thus, if the court later finds that the current conditions of detention at the CDOC facilities violate the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs, it can order the governor to remedy those conditions.
The appeals court, in remitting further proceedings to the lower court, said it had not “considered whether the plaintiffs were entitled to a remedy”.