Equal Protection Supreme Court Cases
The Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that no state may deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. While the Fourteenth Amendment applies only to the states, courts have determined that equal protection principles implicitly apply to the federal government as well. Over time, courts have developed three general tiers of scrutiny for reviewing equal protection challenges:
- Strict scrutiny: the government must show that its action furthers a compelling government interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest
- Intermediate scrutiny: the government must show that its action furthers an important government interest by using means that are substantially related to that interest
- Rational basis review: the challenger must prove that the government action is not rationally related to a legitimate government interest
Strict scrutiny is usually triggered when a government action involves a “suspect classification,” such as race, religion, national origin, or alienage (lack of citizenship). Intermediate scrutiny is usually triggered by a “quasi-suspect classification,” such as gender or legitimacy. Rational basis review provides the standard when no suspect or quasi-suspect classification is involved, such as when the government imposes economic regulations.
Below is a selection of Supreme Court cases involving equal protection, arranged from newest to oldest.
College admissions programs violated the Equal Protection Clause when they lacked sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employed race in a negative manner, involved racial stereotyping, and lacked meaningful end points.
Obergefell v. Hodges (2015)
The Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed outside the state.
Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (2014)
There is no authority in the U.S. Constitution or Supreme Court precedents for the judiciary to set aside state laws that commit to the voters the determination of whether racial preferences may be considered in government decisions.
Fisher v. University of Texas (2013)
Strict scrutiny must be applied to any university admissions program using racial categories or classifications. Once the university has established that its goal of diversity is consistent with strict scrutiny, the university must prove that the means that it chose to attain that diversity are narrowly tailored to its goal.
Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007)
The harm being remedied by mandatory desegregation plans is the harm that is traceable to segregation, and the Constitution is not violated by racial imbalance in the schools, without more.
Grutter v. Bollinger (2003)
The narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body is not prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause.
Bush v. Gore (2000)
The use of standardless manual recounts after a presidential election violated the Equal Protection Clause.
Village of Willowbrook v. Olech (2000)
The Equal Protection Clause gives rise to a cause of action on behalf of a "class of one" when the plaintiff does not allege membership in a class or group, but alleges that they have been intentionally treated differently from others similarly situated and that there is no rational basis for such treatment.
Vacco v. Quill (1997)
A state does not violate the Equal Protection Clause by banning assisted suicide while permitting patients to refuse medical treatment.
U.S. v. Virginia (1996)
Parties who seek to defend gender-based government action must demonstrate an exceedingly persuasive justification for that action. The justification must be genuine and must not rely on overly broad generalizations about the different talents, capacities, or preferences of males and females.
Romer v. Evans (1996)
The Equal Protection Clause does not permit a status-based classification of persons undertaken for its own sake. Thus, a state constitutional amendment violated the Equal Protection Clause when it precluded all legislative, executive, or judicial action at any level of state or local government designed to protect the status of persons based on their homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices, or relationships.
City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc. (1985)
Requiring a special use permit for a proposed group home for mentally retarded people violated equal protection. Although the mentally retarded, as a group, are different from those who occupy other facilities that are permitted in the zoning area in question without a special permit, such difference is irrelevant unless the proposed group home would threaten the city’s legitimate interests in a way that the permitted uses would not.
Michael M. v. Superior Court (1981)
A statute will be upheld when the gender classification is not invidious but instead realistically reflects the fact that the sexes are not similarly situated in certain circumstances.
Minnesota v. Clover Leaf Creamery Co. (1981)
The Equal Protection Clause does not deny a state the authority to ban one type of milk container conceded to cause environmental problems merely because another already established type is permitted to continue in use.
Ambach v. Norwick (1979)
Some state functions are so bound up with the operation of the state as a governmental entity as to permit the exclusion from those functions of all persons who have not become part of the process of self-government.
Regents of Univ. of California v. Bakke (1978)
A state university may take race into account as a factor in its admissions decisions, but it may not use racial quotas.
Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Dev. Corp. (1977)
Proof of a racially discriminatory intent or purpose is required to show a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.
Craig v. Boren (1976)
Classifications by gender must serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to the achievement of those objectives.
Mathews v. Lucas (1976)
The judicial scrutiny traditionally devoted to cases involving discrimination along lines of race or national origin is not required when legislation treats legitimate and illegitimate offspring differently.
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture v. Moreno (1973)
A legislative classification cannot be sustained if it is clearly irrelevant to the stated purposes of the law and does not rationally further any other legitimate government interest.
Frontiero v. Richardson (1973)
A statute was unconstitutional when it provided that spouses of male members of the uniformed services would be considered dependents, but spouses of female members would not be considered dependents unless they were in fact dependent for over one-half of their support.
San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973)
Strict judicial scrutiny is reserved for cases involving laws that operate to the disadvantage of suspect classes or interfere with the exercise of fundamental rights and liberties explicitly or implicitly protected by the Constitution. (Poverty is not a suspect class, and education is not a fundamental right.)
Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972)
If the distribution of contraceptives to married persons cannot be prohibited, a ban on distribution to unmarried persons would be equally impermissible, since the constitutionally protected right of privacy inheres in the individual, rather than the marital couple.
Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971)
If school authorities fail in their affirmative obligations under the holdings of Brown v. Board of Education and related decisions, judicial authority may be invoked. Once a right and a violation have been shown, the scope of a district court’s equitable powers to remedy past wrongs is broad, for breadth and flexibility are inherent in equitable remedies.
Loving v. Virginia (1967)
A statutory scheme to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of racial classifications violates the Fourteenth Amendment.
Reynolds v. Sims (1964)
The Equal Protection Clause requires substantially equal legislative representation for all citizens in a state, regardless of where they reside. Legislators represent people, rather than areas, and weighting votes differently according to where citizens happen to reside is discriminatory.
Cooper v. Aaron (1958)
State support of segregated schools through any arrangement, management, funds, or property cannot be squared with the Equal Protection Clause.
Bolling v. Sharpe (1954)
In view of the decision in Brown v. Board of Education that the Constitution prohibits the states from maintaining racially segregated public schools, it would be unthinkable that the same Constitution would impose a lesser duty on the federal government.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)
Segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprives children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities, even if the physical facilities and other tangible factors may be equal.
Hernandez v. Texas (1954)
The constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws is not directed solely against discrimination between whites and African-Americans. When the existence of a distinct class is demonstrated, and the laws single out that class for different treatment not based on a reasonable classification, the guarantees of the Constitution have been violated.
Barrows v. Jackson (1953)
The Fourteenth Amendment bars the enforcement of a covenant forbidding the use and occupancy of real estate by non-Caucasians by an action at law in a state court to recover damages from a co-covenantor for a breach of the covenant.
McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950)
Having been admitted to a state-supported graduate school, an African-American student must receive the same treatment at the hands of the state as students of other races.
Sweatt v. Painter (1950)
An African-American student was required to be admitted to a state law school when he was denied admission solely because of his race, and the legal education offered him at a separate law school established by the state for African-Americans was not substantially equal to the legal education offered at the state law school.
Railway Express Agency, Inc. v. New York (1949)
It is no requirement of equal protection that all evils of the same genus be eradicated or none at all.
Shelley v. Kraemer (1948)
Private agreements to exclude persons of a designated race or color from the use or occupancy of real estate for residential purposes do not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, but it is violative of the Equal Protection Clause for state courts to enforce them.
Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma (1948)
An African-American person who is qualified to receive professional legal education offered by a state cannot be denied such education because of their color. The state must provide such education for them in conformity with the Equal Protection Clause and provide it as soon as it does for applicants of any other group.
Korematsu v. U.S. (1944)
All legal restrictions that curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect and must be subjected to the most rigid scrutiny. However, pressing public necessity may sometimes justify the existence of such restrictions.
Skinner v. Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson (1942)
Strict scrutiny of the classification that a state makes in a sterilization law is essential, lest invidious discriminations are made against groups or types of individuals in violation of the constitutional guaranty of just and equal laws.
Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938)
If a state furnishes higher education to white residents, it is bound to furnish substantially equal advantages to African-American residents, although not necessarily in the same schools.
U.S. v. Carolene Products Co. (1938)
Regulatory legislation affecting ordinary commercial transactions is not unconstitutional unless it is of such a character as to preclude the assumption that the law rests on a rational basis within the knowledge and experience of the legislature. (Footnote 4 laid the foundation for heightened scrutiny in certain situations involving fundamental rights, the political process, and racial, national, or religious minorities.)
Gong Lum v. Rice (1927)
A child of Chinese blood who is a citizen of the U.S. is not denied the equal protection of the law by being classed by the state among the colored races who are assigned to public schools separate from those provided for the whites when equal facilities for education are afforded to both classes.
Muller v. Oregon (1908)
The regulation of the working hours of women falls within the police power of the state, and a statute directed exclusively to such regulation does not conflict with the Due Process or Equal Protection Clauses.
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
A law that authorizes or even requires the separation of the two races in public conveyances is not unreasonable. (This decision essentially applied rational basis review to what would now be considered a suspect classification and was overturned by Brown v. Board of Education.)
Pace v. Alabama (1883)
A state law prohibiting a white person and an African-American person from living with each other “in adultery or fornication” did not violate the Constitution even though it prescribed penalties more severe than those to which the parties would be subject, were they of the same race and color.
U.S. v. Harris (1883)
When the laws of a state, as enacted by its legislative and construed by its judicial and administered by its executive departments, recognize and protect the rights of all persons, the Fourteenth Amendment imposes no duty and confers no power on Congress.
Civil Rights Cases (1883)
It is state action of a particular character that is prohibited by the Fourteenth Amendment. Individual invasion of individual rights is not the subject matter of the amendment.
Strauder v. West Virginia (1880)
When a state law secures to every white man the right of trial by a jury selected from and without discrimination against his race, and at the same time permits or requires such discrimination against the colored man because of his race, the latter is not equally protected by law with the former.