Toll v. Moreno

441 U.S. 458 (1979)

The Supreme Court held that a state university’s policy that categorically denies “in-state” status to domiciled non-immigrant G-4 aliens and their dependents is invalid under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  (Read the opinion here).

In 1973, the University of Maryland adopted a policy of granting preferential treatment for the purposes of tuition and fees to students with “in-state” status. The policy excluded nonimmigrant aliens. When the University relied on this policy to deny in-state tuition to respondent students who were G-4 dependents residing in the state, the respondents filed a class action against the University of Maryland and its President, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.

The Maryland District Court and U.S. Supreme Court found, in a prior proceeding Elkins v. Moreno (1978), that the denial of in-state status rested on a “not universally true” irrebuttable presumption that a G-4 alien cannot establish domicile in Maryland. The Maryland Court of Appeals concluded, however, that nothing in the general Maryland law of domicile rendered G-4 visa holders, or their dependents, incapable of being domiciled in a state.

Before the Maryland Court of Appeals sent its answer to the Supreme Court, the University of Maryland created a “clarifying resolution” that asserted that the in-state policy served the substantial interests of (a) limiting the University’s expenditures, (b) achieving equalization between the affected classes of educational expenses, (c) efficiently administering the University’s in-state tuition determination and appeals process, and (d) preventing disparate treatment among categories of nonimmigrants. The Supreme Court in Toll v. Moreno (1979), concluded from the resolution that domicile was no longer the “paramount policy consideration” of the University. On remand, the District Court found the policy invalid for violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution by encroaching upon Congress’ prerogatives with respect to regulating immigration. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

In the majority opinion delivered by Justice Brennan, and joined by Justices White, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, and Stevens, the Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals, finding that the state policy, as applied to the G-4 aliens and their dependents, violated the supremacy clause. The Court emphasized that the federal government has broad constitutional authority in determining which aliens should be admitted to the United States through the power to establish a Uniform Rule of Naturalization, to regulate commerce with foreign nations (Const Art I s. 8 cl. 3), and to regulate foreign affairs. By contrast, the states do not. 

The Court concluded that when a state regulation, not congressionally sanctioned, discriminates against aliens lawfully admitted to the country and imposes additional burdens not contemplated by Congress, that regulation is impermissible. Congress had allowed G-4 aliens, employees of various international organizations and their immediate families, to enter the country on terms permitting them to establish domicile in the United States. The federal government had also afforded these G-4 visa holders tax exemption to serve as inducement for these immigrants. The clarifying resolution, however, justified the policy based on the “dollar differential” at stake from the respondents’ parents not paying taxes. Therefore, the majority found that the University’s “in-state” policy frustrated Congress’s purpose and was therefore impermissible.

Justice O’Connor, concurring in part and dissenting in part, agreed with the majority’s finding that the state cannot charge out-of-state tuition to aliens who are domiciled in the state and are exempt from federal and state taxes under federal law. O’Connor made a distinction, however, between G-4 aliens exempted by federal law from state taxes as opposed to federal taxes.  O’Connor found that where aliens are only exempted from federal taxes, the supremacy clause does not prohibit a university from charging out-of-state tuition.

The dissenting opinion by Justices Rehnquist and Chief Justice Burger asserted that the majority’s holding foreclosed governmental autonomy in an area firmly within the state’s responsibilities—education.

Authored by: Fatmata Saidua Kabia, Cornell Law School