Johnson v. California
543 U.S. 499 (2005)

  • The California prison system has a policy that new prisoners were always assigned cellmates of the same race.
    • The theory was that this would reduce racially-motivated violence.
  • Johnson sued, claiming that this policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
    • California agreed that they policy created race-based classifications, but that they had a good reason for doing so.
      • California also agued that the law was racially-neutral since all prisoners were ‘equally’ segregated.
  • The Trial Court found for California. Johnson appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that the policy met the rational basis test, and so was constitutionally permissible under the Equal Protection Clause.
      • The rational basis test is the lowest level judicial scrutiny, and says that in order to withstand judicial scrutiny on equal protection grounds, a law must bear a rational relation to some legitimate end.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed. Johnson appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court reversed and remanded for a new trial.
    • The US Supreme Court reiterated that policies that create race-based classifications are subject to strict scrutiny.
      • Strict scrutiny is the level of review used when a fundamental constitutional right is infringed, or when the government action involves the use of a suspect classification such as race that may render it void under the Equal Protection Clause.
        • In order to pass a strict scrutiny review, a law must:
          • Be justified by a compelling governmental interest.
          • Be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.
          • Use least restrictive means to achieve that interest.
    • The Court remanded the case to determine if the California policy could withstand strict scrutiny.