Landmark Case

Johnson v. California

February 23, 2005

For nearly 25 years, the California Department of Corrections (CDC) held an unwritten policy of segregating prisoners by race for, upon entry to a new facility.

However, in February, 2005 the Supreme Court, in a 5-3 decision, declared this policy was not up to constitutional standards.

The CDC implemented this policy in order to curb interracial violence.

Upon entry to a new facility each prisoner was placed into cells based upon their ethnic and racial classifications for a period of up to sixty days, however, during meals and recreation inmates are integrated.

At the time of oral argument, California was the only state in the nation which repeatedly separated inmates for several weeks or more.

Garrison Johnson, an African-American inmate who had served in various facilities since 1987, filed the suit in California District Court, seeking relief from violations of the Equal Protection clause.

The District Court granted prison officials immunity because there efforts served a state interest and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed this ruling.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case back to the lower courts, as they had failed to apply strict scrutiny to the CDC's policy, "Under strict scrutiny, the government has the burden of proving that racial classifications "are narrowly tailored measures that further compelling governmental interests."

In her opinion for the majority Justice O'Connor also wrote, "Granting the CDC an exemption from the rule that strict scrutiny applies to all racial classifications would undermine our "unceasing efforts to eradicate racial prejudice from our criminal justice system."

Case Developments  
Ruling
02/23/2005

U.S. Supreme Court rules segregating prisoners by race is unconstitutional.