High court to scrutinize prison racial segregation

California case challenges practice meant to reduce violence behind bars

March 02, 2004|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court agreed yesterday to hear a constitutional challenge to California's policy of segregating new prisoners by race.

For the first 60 days, new inmates are kept in cells with another inmate of the same race, in what state officials say is an effort to reduce violence. White skinheads or members of black and Hispanic gangs are more likely to get into fights if they are housed with someone of another race, the officials say.

The new prisoners are evaluated for their potential for violence, and after 60 days, they are assigned to a permanent cell - without regard to race.

The segregation policy was challenged by Garrison Johnson, a black inmate, who contended that "intentional state racial segregation" violates the Constitution and its guarantee of equal protection. He lost before a federal judge and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but the U.S. Supreme Court voted to take up his claim.

Since the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, in which the Supreme Court rejected the notion of "separate but equal" in public education, the high court has frowned upon nearly all government policies or practices that require segregation by race. However, judges have upheld moves by prison officials to separate black and white inmates in response to rioting or fighting.

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.

Lawyers for Garrison say this emergency exception is not enough to justify routine racial segregation.

"Over 100,000 California inmates are subject to admittedly segregationist government policies," they wrote in their petition to the court. "Given the history of stigma and racial discrimination that such segregation calls to mind," the court should forbid the routine practice of relying on race as a means to separate prisoners, they said.

In their reply, the state's lawyers stressed that the initial "classification" period is temporary and said it does not result in different or unfair treatment of inmates. Moreover, the inmates are "fully integrated" during the day when they are at work, at meals and in the yards for recreation.

In other action yesterday, 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.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The New York Times News Service contributed to this article.

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