High court to scrutinize prison racial segregation

California case challenges practice meant to reduce violence behind bars


WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court will reopen the constitutional question of whether prison officials can segregate inmates in an effort to prevent racial violence behind the walls.

In a brief order yesterday, the justices agreed to hear a challenge by a California inmate to a state prison policy of initially assigning every new prisoner only to a cell occupied by another member of the same race.

A key issue is whether the justices will judge such segregation under a constitutional standard that almost never tolerates public policy that is based on race or under a more relaxed approach that gives wide discretion to wardens to manage their prison populations.

In 1968, when the court was energetically striking down racial segregation in a wide array of government programs, the justices ruled unanimously that it was unconstitutional to racially segregate prisons.

The court said, though, that wardens may make "allowance for the necessities of prison security and discipline." It has never spelled out that exception.

California's policy, in effect for the past quarter-century, imposes racial segregation of inmates for their first 60 days behind bars. The policy is designed to give officials time to evaluate whether the inmate would be a threat to other prisoners. After that, segregation of the inmate is no longer required.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco, ruled a year ago that the Supreme Court no longer requires prison officials to provide strong justification for their day-to-day decisions about inmates, even about race, but instead now requires lower courts to defer to prison officials' management of inmates, as long as the policy is "reasonable."

It is reasonable, the appeals court concluded, for officials to use race as the dominant factor in selecting cellmates for newly arriving prisoners because of the "common sense" view, borne out by experience, that racial violence is a fact of life behind prison walls.

The appeals court said it was up to prisoners challenging such segregation to prove why it is not needed, rather than for prison officials to justify the policy.

The constitutional challenge before the Supreme Court is being made by Garrison S. Johnson, a black inmate who has been assigned to what he calls a "black cell" each time he has been transferred among prisons in California. He has been pursuing his challenge since 1995, so far unsuccessfully.

The justices will hold a hearing on his case next fall and might decide it by early next year.

In other action, the court:

Agreed to decide whether a defense lawyer presented an adequate defense by focusing on heading off a death sentence, rather than challenging the prosecution's case in a murder trial.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled in July that if the accused does not plead guilty formally but goes to trial, the defense lawyer can avoid contesting guilt only if the accused explicitly agrees to that tactic.

The state of Florida took that issue to the Supreme Court in the case of Joe Elton Nixon, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for the kidnapping and murder of a Tallahassee woman in 1984. He tied her to a tree and set her on fire. The case will be decided next year.

Considered whether police must take extra care when questioning young people about crimes, part of the court's broad review this year of the familiar "Miranda" warning that begins, "You have the right to remain silent."

Refused for the second time to hear a constitutional challenge to the secret procedures the federal government uses to designate charities and other private groups as terrorist support organizations.

The justices turned down an appeal by the Holy Land Foundation, a Texas group that the government says has helped finance Hamas, a Palestinian group designated a terrorist organization by the State Department.

The court turned aside the first such challenge in November, in an appeal by Global Relief Foundation, a Muslim charity based in Illinois.

Took its first public action on the spreading controversy over whether Justice Antonin Scalia should be disqualified from taking part in a coming decision on public access to the internal working papers of the Bush administration's energy task force, which was headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Scalia has been identified in news accounts as a guest of Cheney on a duck hunting trip soon after the court had agreed to hear Cheney's appeal in the energy case.

The Sierra Club, one of the groups seeking access to task force papers, asked the full court to order Scalia off the case.

But the court, in a brief order, cited "its historic practice" and handed the issue of disqualification to Scalia to decide himself.

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