Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked the U.S. Supreme Court Friday to suspend a lower court ruling that ordered the population of California's overcrowded prisons reduced by up to 40,000 inmates.
Schwarzenegger, state corrections director Matthew Cate and other California officials filed the request for a stay with Justice Anthony Kennedy, who handles emergency appeals from nine western states.
The move came after the lower court - a special panel made up of two federal trial judges and one appeals court judge - refused on Thursday to grant a stay of the decision it issued on Aug. 4.
The officials are asking the high court to suspend that decision while they appeal it.
Their lawyers wrote, "Every day that the three-judge court's order hangs over California, it places enormous strains on the state's existing resources and creates intolerable anxiety for both officials and residents of the nation's most populous state."
A stay, if granted, would allow the state to avoid a Sept. 18 deadline for giving the three-judge panel a plan for reducing the prison population within two years.
If the high court denies a stay, the state would have to meet the Sept. 18 deadline, while its appeal is still pending.
The Supreme Court, which accepts only 1 percent of the appeals it receives, may announce sometime this fall whether it will hear the case.
State lawyers said in the filing that if the high court does accept the appeal, the proceeding could be completed by next June.
The case stems from two long-running civil rights lawsuits in which inmates claim prison medical and mental health care is so deficient it amounts to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.