Johnson v. California

PETITIONER: Garrison S. Johnson
RESPONDENT: California, et al.
LOCATION: Texas State Capitol

DOCKET NO.: 03-636
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 543 US 499 (2005)
GRANTED: Mar 01, 2004
ARGUED: Nov 02, 2004
DECIDED: Feb 23, 2005

Bert H. Deixler - argued the cause for Petitioner
Frances T. Grunder - argued the cause for Respondent
John H. Findley - for the Pacific Legal Foundation as amicus curiae
Paul D. Clement - argued the cause for Petitioner, on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae
Senior Assistant Attorney General - for respondents

Facts of the case

California prisoner Garrison Johnson alleged in federal district court that the California Department of Corrections used race to assign temporary cell mates for new prisoners. Johnson alleged this violated the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause. The district court and a federal appellate court ruled against Johnson. The appellate court pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1987 decision in Turner v. Safley, which said a relaxed standard - as opposed to a "strict scrutiny" standard - should be used to determine whether prison regulations are constitutional. The prison's policies were "reasonably related to the administrators' concern for racial violence and thus must be upheld," the appellate court wrote.


Is a state's practice of temporary racial segregation of state prisoners subject to strict scrutiny?

Media for Johnson v. California

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 02, 2004 in Johnson v. California

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - February 23, 2005 in Johnson v. California

John Paul Stevens:

Justice O’Connor has the opinion to announce in Johnson against California.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

This case comes to us on writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The California Department of Corrections has an unwritten policy of racially segregating prisoners in double cells in reception centers for up to 60 days each time they enter a new correctional facility.

During that time, prison officials evaluate inmates to determine their ultimate placement.

The claim is that this system of segregation is necessary to prevent violence caused by racial gangs.

The petitioner in this case, Garrison Johnson, is an African-American inmate in the California Correctional System.

He has been incarcerated since 1987 in a number of prison facilities.

Upon his arrival at each facility, Johnson has been double-celled with another African-American inmate.

Johnson filed suit alleging that California’s policy violated his right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment by assigning him cellmates on the basis of race.

The District Court granted summary judgment for the State and the Ninth Circuit affirmed under the deferential standard of review which we adopted in Turner versus Safley for prison administration.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk of the Court today, we reverse the Ninth Circuit’s judgment.

We hold that strict scrutiny is the proper standard of review for Johnson’s constitutional challenge to California’s policy.

We have held repeatedly that all racial classifications imposed by the government must be analyzed by reviewing court under so-called strict scrutiny.

Under that test, the government has the burden of proving that racial classifications are narrowly tailored measures that further compelling governmental interest.

We insist on strict scrutiny because racial classifications raise special fears of motivation by invidious purpose, and strict scrutiny enables courts to smoke out any illegitimate uses of race.

The more deferential standard of review articulated in Turner versus Safley is too lenient for this purpose.

We do not decide the constitutionality of California’s policy today.

We remand for the lower courts to decide that question after applying the proper standard.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion; Justice Thomas has also filed a dissenting opinion which Justice Scalia has joined; Justice Ginsburg has filed a concurring opinion joined by Justices Souter and Breyer.