Johnson v. California

Following is the case brief for Johnson v. California, Supreme Court of the United States, (2005)

Case summary for Johnson v. California:

  • Johnson, a black man, was detained in a state prison where he was segregated based on his race.
  • Johnson challenged the state prison’s unwritten policy in federal district court, claiming it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.
  • The lower federal courts found for the state, claiming that a lower level of scrutiny was the appropriate standard.
  • The Court held that the appropriate standard to apply to race-based classifications in prison is strict scrutiny and that the policy failed to the meet that standard, violating the Equal Protection Clause.

Johnson v. California Case Brief

Statement of the facts:

The state of California’s correction facility utilized an unspoken policy where prisoners were racially segregated in reception center cells for up to 60 day. This occurred each time the prisoner was transferred to a new facility. Prison officials claimed the practice was implemented to prevent gang-related violence. A prisoner, Garrison S. Johnson, challenged the policy claiming it violated the Equal Protection clause. The federal district court found for the state.

Procedural History:

In response, Johnson appealed to the court of appeal, which affirmed the lower court’s decision. Johnson then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, which granted certiorari.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Government created racial classifications are subject to strict scrutiny, even policy created for prisons.

Issue and Holding:

Is strict scrutiny the appropriate standard to review classifications based on race in prisons? Yes.


The Court reversed and remanded the lower court’s judgment.


The Court held that prior case law makes it clear that all racial classifications created by government must be analyzed under a strict scrutiny standard of review. Under the strict scrutiny level of scrutiny, the government must prove that the racial classifications are narrowly tailored to further a compelling governmental interests.

The Court held that strict scrutiny must always be applied because classifications based on race tend to be subject to “invidious uses of race.”

The state claims that its policy should not be subject to strict scrutiny since it is a neutral policy. They state it is neutral because it applies to all racial groups equally. However, the Court rejects this argument as precedent state the contrary. The Court also rejects the state’s argument that strict scrutiny is not necessary because the purpose of the policy is to reduce race-related gang violence.

The Court held that granting an exception would undermine the efforts to end race-based prejudice present in the criminal justice system. The Court points out that segregating prisoners actually contributes to problems of racial hostility through considering each prisoner’s race. Following the strict scrutiny standard does not burden prison systems and helps to end the distinctions based on race among prison gangs.

Concurring or Dissenting opinion:

Concurring (Ginsburg):

The Majority is correct as the racial classification at issue cannot be justified because it applied equally to all racial groups, but this reasoning cannot govern all cases based on racial classifications. It is important to note that less burdensome classifications might be acceptable in circumstances where they can be applied evenly.

Dissenting (Thomas):

When it comes to protecting the rights of prisoners, the Constitution has always required a lower level of scrutiny.  This is expressed in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), where the court held a“relaxed standard of review applies to all circumstances in which the needs of prison administration implicate constitutional rights.” The Court should have found for the state because their policies are based on fighting actual occurrences of violence from race-based gang violence.

Dissenting (Stevens):

The Majority fails to consider the realities of what occurs within prison walls and focused on what the ideal standard should be. Looking to Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003), the majority acknowledges  that “all racial classifications reviewable under the Equal Protection Clause must be strictly scrutinized,” but race-based classification which occur inside a prison facility should be subject to a lesser standard.


Johnson v. California helped establish the importance of strict scrutiny as the appropriate level of scrutiny for race-based classifications, regardless of an individual’s detainment in a state correctional facility.

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