Facially Neutral Laws Implicating a Racial Minority
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.
A classification made expressly upon the basis of race triggers strict scrutiny and ordinarily results in its invalidation; similarly, a classification that facially makes a distinction on the basis of sex, or alienage, or whether a person was born out of wedlock triggers the level of scrutiny appropriate to it. A classification that is ostensibly neutral but is an obvious pretext for racial discrimination or for discrimination on some other forbidden basis is subject to heightened scrutiny and ordinarily invalidation.1 But when it is contended that a law, which is in effect neutral, has a disproportionately adverse effect upon a racial minority or upon another group particularly entitled to the protection of the Equal Protection Clause, a much more difficult case is presented.
In Washington v. Davis, the Court held that is necessary that one claiming harm based on the disparate or disproportionate impact of a facially neutral law prove intent or motive to discriminate.2 For a time, in reliance upon a prior Supreme Court decision that had seemed to eschew motive or intent and to pinpoint effect as the key to a constitutional violation, lower courts had questioned this proposition.3 Further, the Court had considered various civil rights statutes which provided that when employment practices are challenged for disqualifying a disproportionate number of black applicants, discriminatory purpose need not be proved and that demonstrating a rational basis for the challenged practices was not a sufficient defense.4 Thus, the lower federal courts developed a constitutional “disproportionate impact” analysis under which, absent some justification going substantially beyond what would be necessary to validate most other classifications, a violation could be established without regard to discriminatory purpose by showing that a statute or practice adversely affected a class.5 These cases were disapproved in Davis, but the Court noted that “an invidious discriminatory purpose may often be inferred from the totality of the relevant facts, including the fact, if it be true, that the law bears more heavily on one race than another. It is also not infrequently true that the discriminatory impact . . . may for all practical purposes demonstrate unconstitutionality because in various circumstances the discrimination is very difficult to explain on nonracial grounds.” 6
The application of Davis in the following Terms led to both elucidation and not a little confusion. Looking to a challenged zoning decision of a local board that had a harsher impact upon black and low-income persons than upon others, the Court in Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Dev. Corp.7 explained in some detail how inquiry into motivation would work. First, a plaintiff is not required to prove that an action rested solely on discriminatory purpose; establishing “a discriminatory purpose” among permissible purposes shifts the burden to the defendant to show that the same decision would have resulted absent the impermissible motive.8 Second, determining whether a discriminatory purpose was a motivating factor “demands a sensitive inquiry into such circumstantial and direct evidence of intent as may be available.” Impact provides a starting point and “[s]ometimes a clear pattern, unexplainable on grounds other than race, emerges from the effect of the state action even when the governing legislation appears neutral on its face,” but this is a rare case.9 In the absence of such a stark pattern, a court will look to such factors as the “historical background of the decision,” especially if there is a series of official discriminatory actions. The specific sequence of events may shed light on purpose, as would departures from normal procedural sequences or from substantive considerations usually relied on in the past to guide official actions. Contemporary statements of decisionmakers may be examined, and “[i]n some extraordinary instances the members might be called to the stand at trial to testify concerning the purpose of the official action, although even then such testimony frequently will be barred by privilege.” 10 In most circumstances, a court is to look to the totality of the circumstances to ascertain intent.
Strengthening of the intent standard was evidenced in a decision sustaining against a sex discrimination challenge a state law giving an absolute preference in civil service hiring to veterans. Veterans who obtain at least a passing grade on the relevant examination may exercise the preference at any time and as many times as they wish and are ranked ahead of all non-veterans, no matter what their score. The lower court observed that the statutory and administrative exclusion of women from the armed forces until the recent past meant that virtually all women were excluded from state civil service positions and held that results so clearly foreseen could not be said to be unintended. Reversing, the Supreme Court found that the veterans preference law was not overtly or covertly gender-based; too many men are non-veterans to permit such a conclusion, and some women are veterans. That the preference implicitly incorporated past official discrimination against women was held not to detract from the fact that rewarding veterans for their service to their country was a legitimate public purpose. Acknowledging that the consequences of the preference were foreseeable, the Court pronounced this fact insufficient to make the requisite showing of intent. “‘Discriminatory purpose’ . . . implies more than intent as volition or intent as awareness of consequences. . . . It implies that the decisionmaker . . . selected or reaffirmed a particular course of action at least in part ‘because of,’ not merely ‘in spite of,’ its adverse effects upon an identifiable group.” 11
Moreover, in City of Mobile v. Bolden12 a plurality of the Court apparently attempted to do away with the totality of circumstances test and to separately evaluate each of the factors offered to show a discriminatory intent. At issue was the constitutionality of the use of multi-member electoral districts to select the city commission. A prior decision had invalidated a multi-member districting system as discriminatory against black and Hispanic citizens by listing and weighing a series of factors which in totality showed invidious discrimination, but the Court did not consider whether its ruling was premised on discriminatory purpose or adverse impact.13 But in the plurality opinion in Mobile, each of the factors, viewed “alone,” was deemed insufficient to show purposeful discrimination.14 Moreover, the plurality suggested that some of the factors thought to be derived from its precedents and forming part of the totality test in opinions of the lower federal courts—such as minority access to the candidate selection process, governmental responsiveness to minority interests, and the history of past discrimination—were of quite limited significance in determining discriminatory intent.15 But, contemporaneously with Congress’s statutory rejection of the Mobile plurality standards,16 the Court, in Rogers v. Lodge,17 appeared to disavow much of Mobile and to permit the federal courts to find discriminatory purpose on the basis of “circumstantial evidence” 18 that is more reminiscent of pre-Washington v. Davis cases than of the more recent decisions.
Rogers v. Lodge was also a multimember electoral district case brought under the Equal Protection Clause19 and the Fifteenth Amendment. The fact that the system operated to cancel out or dilute the votes of black citizens, standing alone, was insufficient to condemn it; discriminatory intent in creating or maintaining the system was necessary. But direct proof of such intent is not required. “[A]n invidious purpose may often be inferred from the totality of the relevant facts, including the fact, if it is true, that the law bears more heavily on one race than another.” 20 Turning to the lower court’s enunciation of standards, the Court approved the Zimmer formulation. The fact that no black person had ever been elected in the county, in which black citizens were a majority of the population but a minority of registered voters, was “important evidence of purposeful exclusion.” 21 Standing alone this fact was not sufficient, but a historical showing of past discrimination, of systemic exclusion of black citizens from the political process as well as educational segregation and discrimination, combined with continued unresponsiveness of elected officials to the needs of the black community, indicated the presence of discriminatory motivation. The Court also looked to the “depressed socio-economic status” of the black population as being both a result of past discrimination and a barrier to black citizens' access to voting power.22 As for the district court’s application of the test, the Court reviewed it under the deferential “clearly erroneous” standard and affirmed it.
The Court in a jury discrimination case also seemed to allow what it had said in Davis and Arlington Heights it would not permit.23 Noting that disproportion alone is insufficient to establish a violation, the Court nonetheless held that the plaintiff’s showing that 79 percent of the county’s population was Spanish-surnamed, whereas jurors selected in recent years ranged from 39 to 50 percent Spanish-surnamed, was sufficient to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. Several factors probably account for the difference. First, the Court has long recognized that discrimination in jury selection can be inferred from less of a disproportion than is needed to show other discriminations, in major part because if jury selection is truly random any substantial disproportion reveals the presence of an impermissible factor, whereas most official decisions are not random.24 Second, the jury selection process was “highly subjective” and thus easily manipulated for discriminatory purposes, unlike the process in Davis and Arlington Heights, which was regularized and open to inspection.25 Thus, jury cases are likely to continue to be special cases and, in the usual fact situation, at least where the process is open, plaintiffs will bear a heavy and substantial burden in showing discriminatory racial and other animus.
In Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, a four-Justice plurality rejected an equal protection challenge to the Department of Homeland Security's decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.26 The DACA program offered “immigration relief” in the form of “favorable treatment” for certain people who arrived in the United States as children.27 The plaintiffs argued that the rescission decision violated equal protection guarantees because it was motivated by impermissible animus, “evidenced by (1) the disparate impact of the rescission on Latinos from Mexico, who represent 78% of DACA recipients; (2) the unusual history behind the rescission,” which included shifting positions about whether to continue the program; “and (3) pre- and post-election statements by President Trump” that were critical of Latinos.28 With respect to the first factor, the plurality found that this disparate impact was “expected” based on the fact that “Latinos make up a large share of the unauthorized alien population.” 29 On the second factor, the plurality said the Administration's “decision to reevaluate DACA . . . was a natural response” to new concerns about the program's legality.30 And finally, the plurality concluded that the President's statements, “remote in time and made in unrelated contexts,” were not probative of other executive officials' decision to rescind the program.31
- See, e.g., Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356 (1886); Guinn v. United States, 238 U.S. 347 (1915); Lane v. Wilson, 307 U.S. 268 (1939); Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339 (1960). A law may be unconstitutional even if it does not facially discriminate on the basis of race, if it “uses the racial nature of an issue to define the governmental decisionmaking structure, and thus imposes substantial and unique burdens on racial minorities.” Washington v. Seattle School Dist., 458 U.S. 457, 470 (1982).
- 426 U.S. 229, 242 (1976) ( “[A] law, neutral on its face and serving ends otherwise within the power of government to pursue, is not invalid under the Equal Protection Clause simply because it may affect a greater proportion of one race than of another.” ) A classification having a differential impact, absent a showing of discriminatory purpose, is subject to review under the lenient, rationality standard. Id. at 247–48; Rogers v. Lodge, 458 U.S. 613, 617 n.5 (1982). The Court has applied the same standard to a claim of selective prosecution allegedly penalizing exercise of First Amendment rights. Wayte v. United States, 470 U.S. 598 (1985) (no discriminatory purpose shown). See also Bazemore v. Friday, 478 U.S. 385 (1986) (existence of single-race, state-sponsored 4-H Clubs is permissible, given wholly voluntary nature of membership).
- The principal case was Palmer v. Thompson, 403 U.S. 217 (1971), in which a 5-to-4 majority refused to order a city to reopen its swimming pools closed allegedly to avoid complying with a court order to desegregate them. The majority opinion strongly warned against voiding governmental action upon an assessment of official motive, id. at 224–26, but it also drew the conclusion (and the Davis Court read it as actually deciding) that, because the pools were closed for everyone, not just black residents, there was no discrimination. The city’s avowed reason for closing the pools—to avoid violence and economic loss—could not be impeached by allegations of a racial motive. See also Wright v. Council of City of Emporia, 407 U.S. 451 (1972).
- Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424 (1971); Albemarle Paper Co. v. Moody, 422 U.S. 405 (1975). The Davis Court adhered to this reading of Title VII, merely refusing to import the statutory standard into the constitutional standard. Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229, 238–39, 246–48 (1976). Subsequent cases involving gender discrimination raised the question of the vitality of Griggs, General Electric Co. v. Gilbert, 429 U.S. 125 (1976); Nashville Gas Co. v. Satty, 434 U.S. 136 (1977), but the disagreement among the Justices appears to be whether Griggs applies to each section of the antidiscrimination provision of Title VII. See Dothard v. Rawlinson, 433 U.S. 321 (1977); Furnco Const. Co. v. Waters, 438 U.S. 567 (1978). But see General Building Contractors Ass’n v. Pennsylvania, 458 U.S. 375 (1982) (unlike Title VII, under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, derived from the Civil Rights Act of 1866, proof of discriminatory intent is required).
- See Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229, 244 n.12 (1976) (listing and disapproving cases). Cases that the Court did not cite include those in which the Fifth Circuit wrestled with the distinction between de facto and de jure segregation. In Cisneros v. Corpus Christi Indep. School Dist. , 467 F.2d 142, 148–50 (5th Cir. 1972) (en banc), cert. denied, 413 U.S. 920 (1973), the court held that motive and purpose were irrelevant and the “de facto and de jure nomenclature” to be “meaningless.” After the distinction was reiterated in Keyes v. Denver School District, 413 U.S. 189 (1973), the Fifth Circuit adopted the position that a decisionmaker must be presumed to have intended the probable, natural, or foreseeable consequences of his decision and therefore that a school board decision that results in segregation is intentional in the constitutional sense, regardless of its motivation. United States v. Texas Educ. Agency, 532 F.2d 380 (5th Cir. 1976), vacated and remanded for reconsideration in light of Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229 (1976), modified and adhered to, 564 F.2d 162, reh. denied, 579 F.2d 910 (5th Cir. 1977–78), cert denied, 443 U.S. 915 (1979). See also United States v. Texas Educ. Agency, 600 F.2d 518 (5th Cir. 1979). This form of analysis was, however, substantially cabined in Massachusetts Personnel Adm’r v. Feeney, 442 U.S. 256, 278–80 (1979), although foreseeability as one kind of proof was acknowledged by Columbus Bd. of Educ. v. Penick, 443 U.S. 449, 464–65 (1979).
- Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. at 242 (1976).
- 429 U.S. 252 (1977).
- 429 U.S. at 265–66, 270 n.21. See also Mt. Healthy City Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 284–87 (1977) (once plaintiff shows defendant acted from impermissible motive in not rehiring him, burden shifts to defendant to show result would have been same in the absence of that motive; constitutional violation not established merely by showing of wrongful motive); Hunter v. Underwood, 471 U.S. 222 (1985) (circumstances of enactment made it clear that state constitutional amendment requiring disenfranchisement for crimes involving moral turpitude had been adopted for purpose of racial discrimination, even though it was realized that some poor white people would also be disenfranchised thereby).
- Arlington Heights, 429 U.S. at 266.
- Arlington Heights, 429 U.S. at 267–68.
- Massachusetts Personnel Adm’r v. Feeney, 442 U.S. 256, 279 (1979). This case clearly established the application of Davis and Arlington Heights to all nonracial classifications attacked under the Equal Protection Clause. But compare Columbus Bd. of Educ. v. Penick, 443 U.S. 449 (1979), and Dayton Bd. of Educ. v. Brinkman, 443 U.S. 526 (1979), in the context of the quotation in the text. These cases found the Davis standard satisfied on a showing of past discrimination coupled with foreseeable impact in the school segregation area.
- 446 U.S. 55 (1980). Also decided by the plurality was that discriminatory purpose is a requisite showing to establish a violation of the Fifteenth Amendment and of the Equal Protection Clause in the “fundamental interest” context, vote dilution, rather than just in the suspect classification context.
- White v. Regester, 412 U.S. 755 (1973), was the prior case. See also Whitcomb v. Chavis, 403 U.S. 124 (1971). Justice White, the author of Register, dissented in Mobile, 446 U.S. at 94, on the basis that “the totality of the facts relied upon by the District Court to support its inference of purposeful discrimination is even more compelling than that present in White v. Register.” Justice Blackmun, id. at 80, and Justices Brennan and Marshall, agreed with him as alternate holdings, id. at 94, 103.
- 446 U.S. at 65–74.
- 446 U.S. at 73–74. The principal formulation of the test was in Zimmer v. McKeithen, 485 F.2d 1297, 1305 (5th Cir. 1973), aff’d on other grounds sub nom. East Carroll Parish School Bd. v. Marshall, 424 U.S. 636 (1976), and its components are thus frequently referred to as the Zimmer factors.
- By the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1982, P.L. 97-205, 96 Stat. 131, 42 U.S.C. § 1973 (as amended), see S. Rep. No. 417, 97th Congress, 2d Sess. 27–28 (1982), Congress proscribed a variety of electoral practices “which results” in a denial or abridgment of the right to vote, and spelled out in essence the Zimmer factors as elements of a “totality of the circumstances” test.
- 458 U.S. 613 (1982). The decision, handed down within days of final congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act Amendments, was written by Justice White and joined by Chief Justice Burger and Justices Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, and O’Connor. Justices Powell and Rehnquist dissented, id. at 628, as did Justice Stevens. Id. at 631.
- 458 U.S. at 618–22 (describing and disagreeing with the Mobile plurality, which had used the phrase at 446 U.S. 74). The Lodge Court approved the prior reference that motive analysis required an analysis of “such circumstantial and direct evidence” as was available. Id. at 618 (quoting Arlington Heights, 429 U.S. at 266).
- The Court confirmed the Mobile analysis that the “fundamental interest” side of heightened equal protection analysis requires a showing of intent when the criteria of classification are neutral and did not reach the Fifteenth Amendment issue in this case. 458 U.S. at 619 n.6.
- 458 U.S. at 618 (quoting Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229, 242 (1976)).
- 458 U.S. at 623–24.
- 458 U.S. at 624–27. The Court also noted the existence of other factors showing the tendency of the system to minimize the voting strength of black citizens, including the large size of the jurisdiction and the maintenance of majority vote and single-seat requirements and the absence of residency requirements.
- Castaneda v. Partida, 430 U.S. 482 (1977). The decision was 5-to-4, Justice Blackmun writing the opinion of the Court and Chief Justice Burger and Justices Stewart, Powell, and Rehnquist dissenting. Id. at 504–07.
- 430 U.S. at 493–94. This had been recognized in Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229, 241 (1976), and Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Dev. Corp., 429 U.S. 252, 266 n.13 (1977).
- Castaneda v. Partida, 430 U.S. 482, 494, 497–99 (1977).
- 140 S. Ct. 1891, 1915 (2020) (plurality opinion). A majority of the Court held that the Department's decision to rescind DACA was “arbitrary and capricious” under the Administrative Procedure Act and remanded the case so the Department could “consider the problem anew.” Id. at 1914, 1916 (majority opinion). Four Justices who dissented from this aspect of the Court's decision concurred in the judgment rejecting the equal protection claim. Id. at 1919 (Thomas, J., concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part); id. at 1935–36 (Kavanaugh, J., concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part).
- Id. at 1901 (majority opinion).
- Id. at 1915 (plurality opinion).
- Id. at 1915–16.
- Id. at 1916.
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