Statess may not temporarily segregate inmates by skin color except under extraordinary circumstances, the Supreme Court said today, the Associated Press reports. The decision all but ended a long-standing California policy aimed at reducing gang-related violence. The 5-3 decision overturns a lower court ruling in favor of California, which argued it should have wide leeway to set race-based restrictions to promote safety. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit now must examine the 25-year-old policy for hard evidence that it is necessary and works.
“Racial classifications raise special fears that they are motivated by an invidious purpose,” wrote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer. Justices John Paul Stevens, Clarence Thomas, and Antonio Scalia dissented. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist did not participate in considering the case, which was heard while he was being treated for thyroid cancer. At issue was a California policy requiring officials to bunk inmates by race for the first 60 days after their arrival. “In the prison context, when the government’s power is at its apex, we think that searching judicial review of racial classifications is necessary,” O’Connor wrote.