The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that California must abandon its policy of assigning inmates to racially segregated cells for as long as 60 days when they arrive at new prisons -- unless the state can prove it has no race-neutral way to prevent interracial violence.
A five-justice majority rejected the state's contention that the court should defer to the judgment of the corrections officials who deemed the unwritten policy necessary to prevent members of race-based gangs from turning on one another in two-man cells. The state also argued that its policy affects members of all races equally. The court said California's policy must withstand the same "strict scrutiny" as all other racial classifications.
"We rejected the notion that separate can ever be equal . . . 50 years ago in Brown v. Board of Education, and we refuse to resurrect it today," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in an opinion that was joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
"When government officers are permitted to use race as a proxy for gang membership and violence without demonstrating a compelling government interest and proving that their means are narrowly tailored, society as a whole suffers," O'Connor added.
The court sent the case back to the lower federal courts, ordering them to reconsider it under the tough standard endorsed in yesterday's ruling. Previously, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, had upheld the California policy, citing a 1987 Supreme Court case that permitted prison authorities to limit constitutional rights for the sake of sound prison administration.
O'Connor wrote yesterday that the court did not intend to rule out victory for California. But it also voiced skepticism about the rationales California has offered so far, noting that the Bush administration argued in a friend-of-the-court brief that racial integration has reduced violence in federal prisons.
That drew a strong dissent from Justice John Paul Stevens, who said the court should have struck down the state's "shameful" policy itself, rather than, as he put it, "postpone the inevitable."
Justice Clarence Thomas said the majority put concern for the "indignity and stigma of racial discrimination" ahead of inmates' "safety and . . . lives."
In a 28-page dissenting opinion that was nearly twice as long as the majority opinion, Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, said California authorities need latitude to deal with such gangs as the Crips and the Aryan Brotherhood. Its policy, he wrote, "is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests."
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, ill with cancer, did not vote.
Under the California policy, prison officials assign each inmate to a cell with a member of the same race or ethnic group for up to 60 days of confinement, both when he is initially imprisoned and each time he is transferred to another facility.
Thereafter, all prison areas, including cells, are racially integrated. But prison officials, citing the state's history of bloody race riots in prisons, say the temporary segregation is needed to assess whether a prisoner is a gang member or otherwise dangerous to members of another race.
Garrison Johnson, who has been incarcerated since 1987 for murder and other offenses, challenged the policy, arguing that racial separation is inherently stigmatizing.
California's policy appears unique, though Texas and Oklahoma also consider race in assigning new prisoners to cells. California's prison population of 164,000 is a close second to Texas's, and it represents about 11 percent of the total state and federal prison population.
The case is Johnson v. California, No. 03-636.