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Name: People v. Hardin (2024) 15 Cal.5th 834
Case #: S277487
Court: CA Supreme Court
Opinion Date: 03/04/2024

Penal Code section 3051, which permits youth offender parole hearings, does not violate equal protection on its face, or as applied in this case, by its exclusion from eligibility of young adult offenders sentenced to LWOP. In 1989, at age 25, Hardin robbed and killed an elderly neighbor. He was convicted of a special circumstance murder and was sentenced to LWOP. Decades later, he filed a motion to develop evidence for a youth offender parole hearing. Hardin acknowledged that as an adult offender sentenced to LWOP, he was not eligible under section 3051, but argued his exclusion violated the federal equal protection clause. The superior court denied Hardin’s motion. The Court of Appeal held the LWOP exclusion invalid for lack of a rational basis. The California Supreme Court granted review. Held: Reversed. Under a rational basis standard, section 3051’s exclusion of young adult offenders sentenced to LWOP is not constitutionally invalid. While the Legislature’s primary purpose in expanding section 3051 was to give young adult offenders the opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated growth and rehabilitation, the structure and history of the statute make clear that the Legislature sought to balance this purpose with other, sometimes competing, concerns about culpability and the appropriate level of punishment for certain very serious crimes. Legions of decisions hold that special circumstance murder is sufficiently serious and morally culpable as to justify imposing the most severe sanctions available under the law. The Legislature could rationally consider degrees of culpability and punishment when it determined that young adults who have committed certain very serious crimes should remain ineligible for release from prison. [Editor’s Note: The court did not foreclose the possibility of other challenges to the distinctions drawn by the special circumstances statute based on a more robust record or a more focused as-applied inquiry. The court also did not consider the validity of other exclusions in section 3051(h).]

When an equal protection argument challenges distinctions drawn between identifiable classes of persons on the face of the law, courts no longer need to first ask whether the two groups are similarly situated. The equal protection requirement ensures that the government does not treat a group of people unequally without some justification. A two-step inquiry has been used: first, asking whether the groups are similarly situated, then whether the challenged classification is adequately justified. The court rejected the two-step process here, where, given the interests underlying the challenged law, asking whether the two groups are similarly situated for purposes of the law is essentially the same as asking whether the distinction between them can be justified. Now, “[t]he only pertinent inquiry is whether the challenged difference in treatment is adequately justified under the applicable standard of review. The burden is on the party challenging the law to show that it is not.” [Editor’s Note: The two-step process is still relevant in cases that do not involve challenges to classifications appearing on the face of the law, for instance, cases involving claims of group-based discrimination against individuals, or so-called “class of one” cases that do not allege differential treatment on the basis of class membership.]

Dissenting Opinions: Justice Liu filed a dissenting opinion, and would have found the exclusion irrational given the Legislature’s stated purpose for establishing and expanding youth offender parole eligibility. Even imputing a purpose of excluding offenders who committed the most serious crimes, there is no rational basis in this context for treating the excluded group differently from young offenders convicted of simple first degree murder.

Justice Evans also filed a dissenting opinion, agreeing with Justice Liu that this exclusion fails under any form of rational basis review. She wrote separately to encourage a rational basis review that considers racial disparities in classifications, particularly here where the challenged classification appears to impose a substantially disproportionate burden on Black and Brown youth.