Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ characterization of the Equal Protection Clause as the “usual last refuge of constitutional arguments” 1 was no doubt made with the practice in mind of contestants tacking on an equal protection argument to a due process challenge of state economic regulation. Few police regulations have been held unconstitutional on this ground.
“[T]he Fourteenth Amendment permits the States a wide scope of discretion in enacting laws which affect some groups of citizens differently than others. The constitutional safeguard is offended only if the classification rests on grounds wholly irrelevant to the achievement of the State’s objective. State legislatures are presumed to have acted within their constitutional power despite the fact that, in practice, their laws result in some inequality. A statutory discrimination will not be set aside if any state of facts reasonably may be conceived to justify it.” 2 The Court has made it clear that only the totally irrational classification in the economic field will be struck down,3 and it has held that legislative classifications that impact severely upon some businesses and quite favorably upon others may be saved through stringent deference to legislative judgment.4 So deferential is the classification that it denies the challenging party any right to offer evidence to seek to prove that the legislature is wrong in its conclusion that its classification will serve the purpose it has in mind, so long as the question is at least debatable and the legislature “could rationally have decided” that its classification would foster its goal.5 The Court has condemned a variety of statutory classifications as failing the rational basis test, although some of the cases are of doubtful vitality today and some have been questioned. Thus, the Court invalidated a statute that forbade stock insurance companies to act through agents who were their salaried employees but permitted mutual companies to operate in this manner.6 A law that required private motor vehicle carriers to obtain certificates of convenience and necessity and to furnish security for the protection of the public was held invalid because of the exemption of carriers of fish, farm, and dairy products.7 The same result befell a statute that permitted mill dealers without well-advertised trade names the benefit of a price differential but that restricted this benefit to such dealers entering the business before a certain date.8 In a decision since overruled, the Court struck down a law that exempted by name the American Express Company from the terms pertaining to the licensing, bonding, regulation, and inspection of “currency exchanges” engaged in the sale of money orders.9
- Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200, 208 (1927).
- McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420, 425–26 (1961).
- City of New Orleans v. Dukes, 427 U.S. 297 (1976). Upholding an ordinance that banned all pushcart vendors from the French Quarter, except those in continuous operation for more than eight years, the Court summarized its method of decision here. “When local economic regulation is challenged solely as violating the Equal Protection Clause, this Court consistently defers to legislative determinations as to the desirability of particular statutory discriminations. . . . Unless a classification trammels fundamental personal rights or is drawn upon inherently suspect distinctions such as race, religion, or alienage, our decisions presume the constitutionality of the statutory discriminations and require only that the classification challenged be rationally related to a legitimate state interest. States are accorded wide latitude in the regulation of their local economies under their police powers, and rational distinctions may be made with substantially less than mathematical exactitude. Legislatures may implement their program step-by-step . . . in such economic areas, adopting regulations that only partially ameliorate a perceived evil and deferring complete elimination of the evil to future regulations. . . . In short, the judiciary may not sit as a superlegislature to judge the wisdom or undesirability of legislative policy determinations made in areas that neither affect fundamental rights nor proceed along suspect lines . . . ; in the local economic sphere, it is only the invidious discrimination, the wholly arbitrary act, which cannot stand consistently with the Fourteenth Amendment.” Id. at 303–04.
- The “grandfather” clause upheld in Dukes preserved the operations of two concerns that had operated in the Quarter for twenty years. The classification was sustained on the basis of (1) the City Council proceeding step-by-step and eliminating vendors of more recent vintage, (2) the Council deciding that newer businesses were less likely to have built up substantial reliance interests in continued operation in the Quarter, and (3) the Council believing that both “grandfathered” vending interests had themselves become part of the distinctive character and charm of the Quarter. 427 U.S. at 305–06. See also Friedman v. Rogers, 440 U.S. 1, 17–18 (1979); United States v. Maryland Savings-Share Ins. Corp., 400 U.S. 4, 6 (1970).
- Minnesota v. Clover Leaf Creamery Co., 449 U.S. 456, 461–70 (1981). The quoted phrase is at 466 (emphasis by Court). Purporting to promote the purposes of resource conservation, easing solid waste disposal problems, and conserving energy, the legislature had banned plastic nonreturnable milk cartons but permitted all other nonplastic nonreturnable containers, such as paperboard cartons. The state court had thought the distinction irrational, but the Supreme Court thought the legislature could have believed a basis for the distinction existed. Courts will receive evidence that a distinction is wholly irrational. United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144, 153–54 (1938).
Classifications under police regulations have been held valid as follows:
Advertising: discrimination between billboard and newspaper advertising of cigarettes, Packer Corp. v. Utah, 285 U.S. 105 (1932); prohibition of advertising signs on motor vehicles, except when used in the usual business of the owner and not used mainly for advertising, Fifth Ave. Coach Co. v. New York, 221 U.S. 467 (1911); prohibition of advertising on motor vehicles except notices or advertising of products of the owner, Railway Express Agency v. New York, 336 U.S. 106 (1949); prohibition against sale of articles on which there is a representation of the flag for advertising purposes, except newspapers, periodicals and books, Halter v. Nebraska, 205 U.S. 34 (1907).
Amusement: prohibition against keeping billiard halls for hire, except in case of hotels having twenty-five or more rooms for use of regular guests. Murphy v. California, 225 U.S. 623 (1912).
Attorneys: Kansas law and court regulations requiring resident of Kansas, licensed to practice in Kansas and Missouri and maintaining law offices in both States, but who practices regularly in Missouri, to obtain local associate counsel as a condition of appearing in a Kansas court. Martin v. Walton, 368 U.S. 25 (1961). Two dissenters, Justices William O. Douglas and Hugo Black, would sustain the requirement, if limited in application to an attorney who practiced only in Missouri.
Cable Television: exemption from regulation under the Cable Communications Policy Act of facilities that serve only dwelling units under common ownership. FCC v. Beach Communications, 508 U.S. 307 (1993). Regulatory efficiency is served by exempting those systems for which the costs of regulation exceed the benefits to consumers, and potential for monopoly power is lessened when a cable system operator is negotiating with a single-owner.
Cattle: a classification of sheep, as distinguished from cattle, in a regulation restricting the use of public lands for grazing. Bacon v. Walker, 204 U.S. 311 (1907). See also Omaechevarria v. Idaho, 246 U.S. 343 (1918).
Cotton gins: in a State where cotton gins are held to be public utilities and their rates regulated, the granting of a license to a cooperative association distributing profits ratably to members and nonmembers does not deny other persons operating gins equal protection when there is nothing in the laws to forbid them to distribute their net earnings among their patrons. Corporation Comm’n v. Lowe, 281 U.S. 431 (1930).
Debt adjustment business: operation only as incident to legitimate practice of law. Ferguson v. Skrupa, 372 U.S. 726 (1963).
Eye glasses: law exempting sellers of ready-to-wear glasses from regulations forbidding opticians to fit or replace lenses without prescriptions from ophthalmologist or optometrist and from restrictions on solicitation of sale of eye glasses by use of advertising matter. Williamson v. Lee Optical Co., 348 U.S. 483 (1955).
Fish processing: stricter regulation of reduction of fish to flour or meal than of canning. Bayside Fish Co. v. Gentry, 297 U.S. 422 (1936).
Food: bread sold in loaves must be of prescribed standard sizes, Schmidinger v. Chicago, 226 U.S. 578 (1913); food preservatives containing boric acid may not be sold, Price v. Illinois, 238 U.S. 446 (1915); lard not sold in bulk must be put up in containers holding 1, 3, or 5 pounds or some whole multiple thereof, Armour & Co. v. North Dakota, 240 U.S. 510 (1916); milk industry may be placed in a special class for regulation, Lieberman v. Van De Carr, 199 U.S. 552 (1905); vendors producing milk outside city may be classified separately, Adams v. Milwaukee, 228 U.S. 572 (1913); producing and nonproducing vendors may be distinguished in milk regulations, St. John v. New York, 201 U.S. 633 (1906); different minimum and maximum milk prices may be fixed for distributors and storekeepers, Nebbia v. New York, 291 U.S. 502 (1934); price differential may be granted for sellers of milk not having a well advertised trade name, Borden’s Farm Products Co. v. Ten Eyck, 297 U.S. 251 (1936); oleomargarine colored to resemble butter may be prohibited, Capital City Dairy Co. v. Ohio, 183 U.S. 238 (1902); table syrups may be required to be so labeled and disclose identity and proportion of ingredients, Corn Products Ref. Co. v. Eddy, 249 U.S. 427 (1919)
Geographical discriminations: legislation limited in application to a particular geographical or political subdivision of a state, Ft. Smith Co. v. Paving Dist., 274 U.S. 387, 391 (1927); ordinance prohibiting a particular business in certain sections of a municipality, Hadacheck v. Sebastian, 239 U.S. 394 (1915); statute authorizing a municipal commission to limit the height of buildings in commercial districts to 125 feet and in other districts to 80 to 100 feet, Welch v. Swasey, 214 U.S. 91 (1909); ordinance prescribing limits in city outside of which no woman of lewd character shall dwell, L’Hote v. New Orleans, 177 U.S. 587, 595 (1900). See also North v. Russell, 427 U.S. 328, 338 (1976).Geographic distinctions in regulatory laws
Hotels: requirement that keepers of hotels having over fifty guests employ night watchmen. Miller v. Strahl, 239 U.S. 426 (1915).
Insurance companies: regulation of fire insurance rates with exemption for farmers mutuals, German Alliance Ins. Co. v. Kansas, 233 U.S. 389 (1914); different requirements imposed upon reciprocal insurance associations than upon mutual companies, Hoopeston Canning Co. v. Cullen, 318 U.S. 313 (1943); prohibition against life insurance companies or agents engaging in undertaking business, Daniel v. Family Ins. Co., 336 U.S. 220 (1949).
Landlord-tenant: requiring trial no later than 6 days after service of complaint and limiting triable issues to the tenant’s default, provisions applicable in no other legal action, under procedure allowing landlord to sue to evict tenants for nonpayment of rent, inasmuch as prompt and peaceful resolution of the dispute is proper objective and tenants have other means to pursue other relief. Lindsey v. Normet, 405 U.S. 56 (1972).
Lodging houses: requirement that sprinkler systems be installed in buildings of nonfireproof construction is valid as applied to such a building which is safeguarded by a fire alarm system, constant watchman service and other safety arrangements. Queenside Hills Co. v. Saxl, 328 U.S. 80 (1946).
Markets: prohibition against operation of private market within six squares of public market. Natal v. Louisiana, 139 U.S. 621 (1891).
Medicine: a uniform standard of professional attainment and conduct for all physicians, Hurwitz v. North, 271 U.S. 40 (1926); reasonable exemptions from medical registration law. Watson v. Maryland, 218 U.S. 173 (1910); exemption of persons who heal by prayer from regulations applicable to drugless physicians, Crane v. Johnson, 242 U.S. 339 (1917); exclusion of osteopathic physicians from public hospitals, Hayman v. Galveston, 273 U.S. 414 (1927); requirement that persons who treat eyes without use of drugs be licensed as optometrists with exception for persons treating eyes by use of drugs, who are regulated under a different statute, McNaughton v. Johnson, 242 U.S. 344 (1917); a prohibition against advertising by dentists, not applicable to other professions, Semler v. Dental Examiners, 294 U.S. 608 (1935).
Motor vehicles: guest passenger regulation applicable to automobiles but not to other classes of vehicles, Silver v. Silver, 280 U.S. 117 (1929); exemption of vehicles from other states from registration requirement, Storaasli v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 57 (1931); classification of driverless automobiles for hire as public vehicles, which are required to procure a license and to carry liability insurance, Hodge Co. v. Cincinnati, 284 U.S. 335 (1932); exemption from limitations on hours of labor for drivers of motor vehicles of carriers of property for hire, of those not principally engaged in transport of property for hire, and carriers operating wholly in metropolitan areas, Welch Co. v. New Hampshire, 306 U.S. 79 (1939); exemption of busses and temporary movements of farm implements and machinery and trucks making short hauls from common carriers from limitations in net load and length of trucks, Sproles v. Binford, 286 U.S. 374 (1932); prohibition against operation of uncertified carriers, Bradley v. Public Utility Comm’n, 289 U.S. 92 (1933); exemption from regulations affecting carriers for hire, of persons whose chief business is farming and dairying, but who occasionally haul farm and dairy products for compensation, Hicklin v. Coney, 290 U.S. 169 (1933); exemption of private vehicles, street cars, and omnibuses from insurance requirements applicable to taxicabs, Packard v. Banton, 264 U.S. 140 (1924).
Peddlers and solicitors: a state may classify and regulate itinerant vendors and peddlers, Emert v. Missouri, 156 U.S. 296 (1895); may forbid the sale by them of drugs and medicines, Baccus v. Louisiana, 232 U.S. 334 (1914); prohibit drumming or soliciting on trains for business for hotels, medical practitioners, and the like, Williams v. Arkansas, 217 U.S. 79 (1910); or solicitation of employment to prosecute or collect claims, McCloskey v. Tobin, 252 U.S. 107 (1920). And a municipality may prohibit canvassers or peddlers from calling at private residences unless requested or invited by the occupant to do so. Breard v. City of Alexandria, 341 U.S. 622 (1951).
Property destruction: destruction of cedar trees to protect apple orchards from cedar rust, Miller v. Schoene, 276 U.S. 272 (1928).
Railroads: prohibition on operation on a certain street, Railroad v. Richmond, 96 U.S. 521 (1878); requirement that fences and cattle guards and allow recovery of multiple damages for failure to comply, Missouri Pacific Ry. v. Humes, 115 U.S. 512 (1885); Minneapolis & St. L. Ry. v. Beckwith, 129 U.S. 26 (1889); Minneapolis & St. L. Ry. v. Emmons, 149 U.S. 364 (1893); assessing railroads with entire expense of altering a grade crossing, New York & N.E. R.R. v. Bristol, 151 U.S. 556 (1894); liability for fire communicated by locomotive engines, St. Louis & S.F. Ry. v. Mathews, 165 U.S. 1 (1897); required weed cutting; Missouri, Kan., & Tex. Ry. v. May, 194 U.S. 267 (1904); presumption against a railroad failing to give prescribed warning signals, Atlantic Coast Line R.R. v. Ford, 287 U.S. 502 (1933); required use of locomotive headlights of a specified form and power, Atlantic Coast Line Ry. v. Georgia, 234 U.S. 280 (1914); presumption that railroads are liable for damage caused by operation of their locomotives, Seaboard Air Line Ry. v. Watson, 287 U.S. 86 (1932); required sprinkling of streets between tracks to lay the dust, Pacific Gas Co. v. Police Court, 251 U.S. 22 (1919). State “full-crew” laws do not violate the Equal Protection Clause by singling out the railroads for regulation and by making no provision for minimum crews on any other segment of the transportation industry, Firemen v. Chicago, R.I. & P. Ry. 393 U.S. 129 (1968).
Sales in bulk: requirement of notice of bulk sales applicable only to retail dealers. Lemieux v. Young, 211 U.S. 489 (1909).
Secret societies: regulations applied only to one class of oath-bound associations, having a membership of twenty or more persons, where the class regulated has a tendency to make the secrecy of its purpose and membership a cloak for conduct inimical to the personal rights of others and to the public welfare. New York ex rel. Bryant v. Zimmerman, 278 U.S. 63 (1928).
Securities: a prohibition on the sale of capital stock on margin or for future delivery which is not applicable to other objects of speculation, e.g., cotton, grain. Otis v. Parker, 187 U.S. 606 (1903).
Sunday closing law: notwithstanding that they prohibit the sale of certain commodities and services while permitting the vending of others not markedly different, and, even as to the latter, frequently restrict their distribution to small retailers as distinguished from large establishments handling salable as well as nonsalable items, such laws have been upheld. Despite the desirability of having a required day of rest, a certain measure of mercantile activity must necessarily continue on that day and in terms of requiring the smallest number of employees to forego their day of rest and minimizing traffic congestion, it is preferable to limit this activity to retailers employing the smallest number of workers; also, it curbs evasion to refuse to permit stores dealing in both salable and nonsalable items to be open at all. McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420 (1961); Two Guys from Harrison-Allentown v. McGinley, 366 U.S. 582 (1961); Braunfeld v. Brown, 366 U.S. 599 (1961); Gallagher v. Crown Kosher Super Market, 366 U.S. 617 (1961). See also Soon Hing v. Crowley, 113 U.S. 703 (1885); Petit v. Minnesota, 177 U.S. 164 (1900).
Telegraph companies: a statute prohibiting stipulation against liability for negligence in the delivery of interstate messages, which did not forbid express companies and other common carriers to limit their liability by contract. Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Milling Co., 218 U.S. 406 (1910).
- Hartford Ins. Co. v. Harrison, 301 U.S. 459 (1937).
- Smith v. Cahoon, 283 U.S. 553 (1931).
- Mayflower Farms v. Ten Eyck, 297 U.S. 266 (1936). See United States v. Maryland Savings-Share Ins. Corp., 400 U.S. 4, 7 n.2 (1970) (reserving question of case’s validity, but interpreting it as standing for the proposition that no showing of a valid legislative purpose had been made).
- Morey v. Doud, 354 U.S. 457 (1957), overruled by City of New Orleans v. Dukes, 427 U.S. 297 (1976), where the exemption of one concern had been by precise description rather than by name.