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Law School Case Brief

Johnson v. California - 543 U.S. 499, 125 S. Ct. 1141 (2005)


All racial classifications imposed by government must be analyzed by a reviewing court under strict scrutiny. Under strict scrutiny, the government has the burden of proving that racial classifications are narrowly tailored measures that further compelling governmental interests. The United States Supreme Court insists on strict scrutiny in every context, even for so-called benign racial classifications, such as race-conscious university admissions policies, race-based preferences in government contracts, and race-based districting intended to improve minority representation.


The California Department of Corrections (CDC) maintained an unwritten policy of racially segregating male prisoners in double cells for up to 60 days each time they entered a correctional facility as a new prisoner or a transferee. The CDC asserted that the policy was necessary to prevent violence caused by racial gangs. An African-American prisoner, Garrison Johnson, who had been double-celled under the policy, filed against some state officials a suit alleging that the policy violated Johnson’s right to equal protection under the Federal Constitution. After proceedings in the United States District Court for the Central District of California and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the District Court granted summary judgment for the state officials, as the court concluded that the officials were entitled to qualified immunity against the suit. The Court of Appeals, in affirming, decided that the policy's constitutionality ought to be reviewed under the deferential standard articulated by the United States Supreme Court in Turner v Safley (1987) 482 U.S. 78, 96 L. Ed. 2d 64, 107 S. Ct. 2254, a case that involved restrictions on prisoners' correspondence and right to marry. The appellate court further held that the policy survived the deferential standard. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari review.


Was the policy of segregating male prisoners by race in double cells subject to strict judicial scrutiny?




The United States Supreme Court held that the policy was subject to strict judicial scrutiny since it was based on racial classification, and thus, the classification was required to be narrowly tailored to further compelling CDC interests. All racial classifications were immediately suspect and subject to strict scrutiny, and the CDC policy was no exception simply because all races were equally segregated, since the segregation itself reinforced racial and ethnic divisions in the correctional facilities. Further, the CDC's discretion and expertise in the unique area of managing daily prison operations did not warrant deference to the CDC's use of race as a means of controlling prison violence, and compromising the inmate's equal protection rights was not necessarily needed for proper prison administration.

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