Plyler v. Doe

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457 U.S. 202 (1982)

The Supreme Court invalidated a Texas statute that denied state funds to local school districts for the education of children unlawfully admitted to the United States and authorized local school districts to deny enrollment to such children because the statute violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  (Read the opinion here).

In the majority opinion delivered by Justice Brennan, the Court addressed whether Texas could “deny to undocumented school-age children the free public education . . . it provide[d] to children” lawfully present in the United States, either as U.S citizens or legally admitted aliens.  Plaintiffs brought this class action on behalf of “all undocumented school-age children of Mexican origin residing within” the Tyler Independent School District and complained that the Tyler Independent School District had wrongfully excluded such children from its public schools.  Before reaching the Supreme Court, two lower federal courts concluded that “illegal aliens were entitled to . . . protection [from] the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that [the Texas statute] violated that Clause.”

The Supreme Court summarized its holding as thus: “If the State is to deny a discrete group of innocent children the free public education that it offers to other children residing within its borders, that denial must be justified by a showing that it furthers some substantial state interest.  No such showing was made here.”  To reach this holding, the majority first concluded that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies to all persons within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States irrespective of whether they entered the country illegally.  The Court emphasized certain express language in the Fourteenth Amendment: “‘[no] State shall . . . 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.’”  The Court stressed that the Fourteenth Amendment applies “to all persons within the territorial jurisdiction, without regard to any differences of race, of color, or of nationality . . . . That a persons’ initial entry into a State, or into the United States, was unlawful, and that he [or she] may for that reason be expelled” does not change the fact that he or she exists within a state’s physical boundaries.

The Court found the Texas statute in question to violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The Court first observed that although the Equal Protection Clause assures the equal treatment of all persons similarly situated, an individual’s right to equal treatment is not unqualified.  That is to say that in some circumstances, the government’s interest will override an individual’s interest in equal treatment.  Because states have considerable “discretion” and “latitude to establish classifications,” courts entertaining an equal protection challenge typically examine whether the “classification at issue bears some fair relationship to a legitimate public purpose.”  However, courts set a much higher bar when the classification disadvantages a suspect class or “impinge[s] upon the exercise of a ‘fundamental right.’”  In such cases, the government must demonstrate that its classification is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest. 

The Court reasoned that undocumented aliens cannot constitute a “suspect class” because such persons entered the United States in violation of federal law.  Moreover, the Court stated that education is not a fundamental right. “[A s]tate need not justify by compelling necessity every variation in the manner in which education is provided to its population.”  Education is not “merely some government ‘benefit’ indistinguishable from other forms of social welfare legislation,” however.  For this reason, the Court spilled considerable ink to underscore the “fundamental role [education plays] in maintaining the fabric of [American] society” and emphasize that public education is vital for the “‘preservation of a democratic system of government’”; that “‘education prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society’”; and that “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”  In light of these stakes, the Court articulated a test: “[T]he discrimination contained in [this statute] can hardly be considered rational unless it furthers some substantial goal of the state.”

Finally, after noting the federal government’s near-exclusive authority to regulate matters of immigration and naturalization, the Court permitted an examination of those state objectives purported to support the Texas statute.  The Court began its analysis by rejecting the state’s argument that classification preserved “‘the state’s limited resources for the education of its lawful residents,” reasoning that this justification did nothing more than to express the state’s intention to discriminate.  The Court then rejected the state’s argument that the classification protected Texas from an influx of illegal immigrants, reasoning that employment, not education, was the dominant incentive for illegal entry.  The Court also rejected the state’s contention that undocumented children were appropriately excluded because they made it more difficult for the state to provide “high quality education.”  The Court reasoned that “barring undocumented children from local schools would not necessarily improve the quality of education provided in those schools.”  Finally, the Court rejected the state’s assertion that undocumented children were appropriately excluded because their status as illegal immigrants made them more likely to leave Texas and put their education to use elsewhere. In the absence of a substantial state goal, the Court declared the Texas statute unconstitutional. 

The dissent criticized the majority for overstepping its authority and legislating from the bench.  Specifically, the dissent emphasized that “the importance of a governmental service does not elevate it to the status of a ‘fundamental right’ for purposes of equal protection analysis.”  Accordingly, because “illegal aliens are not a suspect class” and “education is not a fundamental right,” the majority should have examined whether the “legislative classification at issue [bore] a rational relationship to a legitimate state purpose.”  Using this approach, the dissent would have found that Texas had a legitimate interest in protecting its limited fiscal resources.

Authored by:  Andrew Michael Karp, Cornell Law School