Ambach v. Norwick,
441 U.S. 68 (1979)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Ambach v. Norwick, 441 U.S. 68 (1979)

Ambach v. Norwick

No. 76-808

Argued January 10, 1979

Decided April 17, 1979

441 U.S. 68


Held: A New York statute forbidding permanent certification as a public school teacher of any person who is not a United States citizen unless that person has manifested an intention to apply for citizenship does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 441 U. S. 72-81.

(a) As a general principle, some state functions are so bound up with the operation of the State as a governmental entity as to permit exclusion from those functions of all persons who have not become part of the process of self-government. Accordingly, a State is required to justify its exclusion of aliens from such governmental positions only "by a showing of some rational relationship between the interest sought to be protected and the limiting classification." Foley v. Connelie, 435 U. S. 291, 435 U. S. 296. Pp 441 U. S. 73-74.

(b) This rule for governmental functions, which is an exception to the stricter general standard applicable to classifications based on alienage, rests on important principles inherent in the Constitution. The distinction between citizens and aliens, though ordinarily irrelevant to private activity, is fundamental to the definition and government of a State, and the references to such distinction in the Constitution itself indicate that the status of citizenship was meant to have significance in the structure of our government. It is because of this special significance of citizenship that governmental entities, when exercising the functions of government, have wider latitude in limiting the participation of noncitizens. P. 441 U. S. 75.

(c) Taking into consideration the role of public education and the degree of responsibility and discretion teachers possess in fulfilling that role, it is clear that public school teachers come well within the "governmental function" principle recognized in Sugarman v. Dougall, 413 U. S. 634, and Foley v. Connelie, supra, and, accordingly, the Constitution requires only that a citizenship requirement applicable to teaching in the public school bear a rational relationship to a legitimate state interest. Pp. 441 U. S. 75-80.

Page 441 U. S. 69

(d) Here, the statute in question does bear a rational relationship to the State's interest in furthering its educational goals, especially with respect to regarding all teachers as having an obligation to promote civic virtues and understanding in their classes, regardless of the subject taught. Pp. 441 U. S. 80-81.

417 F.Supp. 913, reversed.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 441 U. S. 81.

Primary Holding

It is constitutional to prohibit non-citizens from teaching in a public school because it is a governmental function.


The state of New York did not allow non-citizens to teach in elementary and secondary public schools. This policy applied even if a non-citizen was otherwise qualified for a position and was eligible for citizenship.



  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • Potter Stewart
  • Byron Raymond White
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist

Certain functions are entangled with the process of self-government because they closely relate to the operation of the state as a governmental entity. Similarly, a state may refuse to allow non-citizens to join the police force because of the substantial discretionary authority accorded to officers. Alienage receives an elevated level of scrutiny because it is a suspect classification, but this level of scrutiny in turn is reduced in a situation that implicates an important governmental function. There need only be a rational relationship between the restrictions imposed on the classification and the government interests that is being served.

Teachers in public schools are intended to serve as examples to their students and embody civic values. This is an important interest of the state, and there is a rational relationship to the requirement that all teachers are U.S. citizens.


  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • John Paul Stevens

This anachronistic policy dates from a xenophobic period in American history, and there is no need to perpetuate this view. Reducing the heightened scrutiny for alienage classifications is unnecessary. Even if it were reduced to a rational basis standard, there is no logical connection between the classification and the cited state interest. Teachers should be hired according to their quality rather than their citizenship.

Case Commentary

This decision found that only a rational basis standard applied in this context, suggesting that government functions can be defined as any situations in which policy can be influenced. Considering that this is only tenuously connected to teaching in public schools, there may not be many areas of government employment in which discrimination against non-citizens is forbidden.

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