Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, 473 U.S. 432; 105 S. Ct. 3249; 87 L. Ed. 2d 313 (1985)

Facts—The city of Cleburne, Texas, denied a permit for a group home for the mentally retarded. The U.S. District Court upheld the ordinance and its application, arguing that no fundamental right or suspect class was at issue. By contrast, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that mental retardation was a “quasi-suspect classification” that should be subject to “intermediate level scrutiny,” and that the evidence was “invalid on its face because it did not substantially further any important governmental interests.”

Questions—(a) Is mental retardation a suspect or quasi-suspect category? (b) Is the application of the Cleburne city ordinance rational and legal?

Decisions—(a) No; (b) No.

ReasonsJ. White (6–3 on [a]; 9–0 on [b]). There are three levels of review under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Minimal or “rational basis” review, most commonly applied to general economic and social legislation, presumes legislation to be valid as long as it is “rationally related to a legitimate state interest.” The Court applies “strict scrutiny” requiring the showing of “a compelling state interest” to classifications based on “race, alienage, or national origin.” Gender classifications fall in between, requiring “a heightened standard of review” and also requiring that such classifications be “substantially related to a sufficiently important governmental interest.” The Court, however, has not applied heightened scrutiny to classifications based on age.

White thought the Circuit Court was wrong to classify mental retardation as a quasi-suspect category. Individuals who are retarded do have a “reduced ability to cope and function in the everyday world.” Moreover, Congress and state legislatures have demonstrated concern for the retarded “in a manner that belies a continuing antipathy or prejudice and a corresponding need for more intrusive oversight by the judiciary.” Such laws show that the retarded are not “politically powerless.” If the retarded were classified as a suspect or quasi-suspect category, the Court would need to consider similar classifica- tions for “the aging, the disabled, the mentally ill, and the infirm.”

Still, legislation dealing with the retarded “must be rationally related to a legitimate governmental purpose” that was not present in this case, which rested on biases and unfounded community perceptions. The Cleburne City Council had not applied its objections to group homes for the retarded to other dwellings (fraternity houses, apartments, hospitals, etc.) of similar size and capacity, and they are therefore invalid.

J. Stevens’s concurrence eschewed the Court’s three-tier system of review for “a continuum of judgmental responses to differing classifications which have been explained in opinions by terms ranging from ‘strict scrutiny’ at one extreme to ‘rational basis’ at the other.”

J. Marshall’s partial dissent argued that the Court should invalidate the statute itself, and not simply its specific application in this case. He argued that the Court had in fact applied the heightened scrutiny it renounced. Marshall would apply heightened scrutiny to this case because of both the importance of the interest at stake (a group home for the retarded) and the invidiousness of the classification. He further described a “lengthy and tragic history” of discrimination against the retarded (including the eugenics movement), which he thought the majority decision underplayed. Noting the ordinance’s archaic reference to the “feeble-minded,” Marshall would have invalidated the ordinance in question.

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