A Supreme Victory

Michael Bien ’77 and Jane Kahn ’77
Michael Bien ’77 and Jane Kahn ’77
A 21-year legal odyssey ended in triumph for husband-and-wife lawyers Michael Bien ’77 and Jane Kahn ’77 in May when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state of California to reduce its prison population by 30,000 to relieve overcrowding so severe that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Bien and Kahn learned of the landmark high court ruling in a phone call from their co-counsel while they were walking through a New York area airport on their way back to San Francisco following a family gathering.

“It was an amazing feeling of accomplishment,” says Bien, a partner at Rosen, Bien & Galvan in San Francisco, where his wife also works. “We gave each other a big hug. It has been such a long struggle — exhausting and exhilarating at different times. We just weren’t sure how the court would rule.”

In writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited evidence from the two decades of litigation: mentally ill prisoners waiting up to a year for treatment, suicidal inmates held for 24 hours in phone booth-size cages without toilets, waiting lists of 700 inmates for a single doctor, gyms converted into triple-bunked living quarters that breed disease, and violence victimizing guards and inmates alike.

The high court’s ruling on May 23 exceeded even Bien’s most optimistic expectations. “We were prepared for a split decision with instructions from the court to go back and fix something,” he says. “Instead, every point raised by the state was rejected by the 5-4 majority. It was a strong decision in favor of civil rights.”

Bien was also gratified that the ruling reaffirmed the judicial system’s role in intervening to decide matters that governments fail to address. “The ruling establishes that courts are there when government power interferes with our fundamental human rights,” he said. “Courts are there to stand up and give voice to the powerless.”
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