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Johnson v. California

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Garrison Johnson (Plaintiff) challenged California’s (Defendant) policy of assigning new inmates temporary cellmates by race as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    When a policy of racial segregation for prisoners assigned to reception centers for up to 60 days is challenged under the Equal Protection Clause, the courts must review the policy under the strict scrutiny standard.

    Facts.

    Plaintiff, a prisoner in California, claimed that the California Department of Corrections assigned temporary cellmates for new prisoners on the basis of race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. New inmates to prison facilities were held in reception centers for up to 60 days after arrival. Prison officials used this time to decide on the long-term placement of each inmate. All other prison facilities, including all permanent cells, were fully integrated. Defendant’s policy was created in order to prevent violence amongst racially-motivated gangs.

    Issue.

    When a policy of racial segregation for prisoners assigned to reception centers for up to 60 days is challenged under the Equal Protection Clause, is strict scrutiny the appropriate standard of review?

    Held.

    (O’Connor, J.) Yes. When a policy of racial segregation for prisoners assigned to reception centers for up to 60 days is challenged under the Equal Protection Clause, the courts must review the policy under the strict scrutiny standard. Although the policy was neutral, in that it segregated all races, strict scrutiny is still appropriate. Racial classifications receive strict scrutiny even when they affect the races equally. The fact that the policy is applied in a prison does not change the proper standard either. The case is remanded to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit or the district court for a review under the strict scrutiny standard.

    Dissent.

    (Stevens, J.) This policy violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Defendant’s actions cannot satisfy strict scrutiny, or even a more deferential standard. Segregation is inherently wrong and Defendant cannot explain why it could not use an individual assessment of a prisoner’s risk of violence as assignment criteria instead of race.

    (Thomas, J.) In order to decide this case, the Court must reconcile two conflicting lines of precedent. Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003) makes strict scrutiny the appropriate standard for all racial classifications challenged under the Equal Protection Clause. On the other hand, Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987) applies a lesser standard of review to cases where prison administration needs affect constitutional rights of prisoners. The majority followed Gratz, but the Constitution does not require this standard in cases involving prisons. The approach from Turner is more appropriate here.

    Concurrence.

    (Ginsburg, J.) Not all reviews of racial classifications merit strict scrutiny. State action in prisons, where there is a history of denial of rights to prisoners, merits different scrutiny than state actions taken to reverse the effects of discrimination. Here, strict scrutiny is appropriate as the policy is clearly not intended to reverse the effects of discrimination.

    Discussion.

    Beginning with the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), the Court had found racial segregation to be inherently unequal and, therefore, always a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Johnson, the Court treated a policy regarding racial segregation like a racial classification case and did not limit its application to prison cases.


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