At the center of California's prison overcrowding problem is whether a federal three-judge panel can tell the state what to do. In this case: the judges ordered last year the release of 40,000-plus inmates in stages to relieve overcrowding, which contributed to unconstitutional medical care.
Republican state Senator George Runner is part of a group of Republican lawmakers that joined Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the release order.
"This is a very important case, not only for California, but for other states, as to what is the appropriate role for the federal government and federal courts to intervene in the operation of state prisons," he said.
Citing a long history of federal intervention, prison reformers say the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to uphold the release order, considering lawmakers have dragged their feet for years, not wanting to appear soft on crime.
California's prisons have long been filled to twice their capacity with a population around 160,000.
"The release of 40,000 prisoners because California has done nothing to mitigate the problems," Matt Gray from Taxpayers for Improving Public Safety said.
Gray hopes California is at least given the opportunity to chose who is released.
"The state still has the chance to do this right. They need to look at each and every offender, look at where they are, do a risk-assessment -- not just do a wholesale release," he said.
Some high court observers think Justice Anthony Kennedy might be the swing vote, as he has been on other controversial issues.
"He's been unpredictable. He's not a knee-jerk conservative as the right wing of the court has been," University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law Professor Michael Vitiello said.
California's case will be heard sometime after the new term begins in October. In the meantime, lawmakers will have to figure out how they'll pay for all those inmates in these tough budgetary times.