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High Court: State Prisoners May Not Racially Segregate Prisoners

Date Posted to Site: 02/23/2005

WASHINGTON (AP) -- State prisons may not temporarily segregate inmates by skin color except under the most extraordinary circumstances, the Supreme Court said Wednesday, all but ending a long-standing California policy aimed at reducing gang-related violence.

The 5-3 decision sets aside a lower court ruling in favor of California, which argued it should have wide leeway to set race-based restrictions to promote safety. As a result, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals must now scrutinize the 25-year-old policy for hard evidence that it is necessary and works -- a burden that will be hard to meet.

Racial segregation is unconstitutional unless there is a "compelling" reason, justices said.

"Racial classifications raise special fears that they are motivated by an invidious purpose," wrote Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist did not participate in considering the case, which was heard in November while he was being treated for thyroid cancer.

At issue was an unwritten California policy requiring officials to automatically bunk inmates by race for the first 60 days after their arrival. After an evaluation for dangerousness, inmates are then assigned to a permanent cell on a nonracial basis. Inmates are separated again by race when they transfer to a new facility.

The California prison system, with roughly 160,000 inmates, is the nation's largest.

The lawsuit was brought by Garrison S. Johnson, a black inmate in prison since 1987 for murder, robbery and assault. He contended the policy violated his 14th Amendment right to equal protection, saying he was constantly humiliated by the segregation after each of his five prison transfers.

The Bush administration backed Johnson in the case, noting America's "uniquely pernicious history" of racial discrimination in prisons that needed remedy. No other state nor the federal Bureau of Prisons has found it necessary to segregate prisoners by race, it said.

But California officials countered that temporarily segregating prisoners was more than justified in a prison system they called "ground zero" for race-based street gangs, such as the black Crips and the white Aryan Nations.

Justices John Paul Stevens, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented in the opinion.

The case posed an interesting conflict for the high court. Since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, the court has repeatedly held that government-imposed race restrictions are almost always unacceptable. In 1968, it unanimously barred permanent racial segregation in prisons.

But justices had also given prison officials a generally free hand in managing their facilities, to control violence and protect inmates and those who guard them. That raised the question of whether prisons should be given deference to segregate inmates on a temporary basis.

In Wednesday's decision, the Supreme Court ultimately said the prison context demands special protection.

"In the prison context, when the government's power is at its apex, we think that searching judicial review of racial classifications is necessary," O'Connor wrote.

The case is Johnson v. California, 03-636.

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