<<Prop. 187 Table of Contents |   <<Back to Materials |   <<Back to Assignments



U.S. Supreme Court

PLYLER v. DOE, 457 U.S. 202 (1982)

Argued December 1, 1981

Decided June 15, 1982 *





Were it our business to set the Nation's social policy, I would agree without hesitation that it is senseless for an enlightened society to deprive any children - including illegal aliens - of an elementary education. I fully agree that it would be folly - and wrong - to tolerate creation of a segment of society made up of illiterate persons, many having a limited or no command of our language. 1  However, the Constitution does not constitute us as "Platonic Guardians" nor does it vest in this Court the authority to strike down laws because they do not meet our standards of desirable social policy, "wisdom," or "common sense." …


…The importance of education is beyond dispute. Yet we have held repeatedly that the importance of a governmental service does not elevate it to the status of a "fundamental right" for purposes of equal protection analysis. San Antonio Independent School Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 30 -31 (1973); Lindsey v. Normet, 405 U.S. 56, 73 -74 (1972). In San Antonio Independent School Dist., supra, JUSTICE POWELL, speaking for the Court, expressly rejected the proposition that state laws dealing with public education are subject to special scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause. Moreover, the Court points to no meaningful way to distinguish between education and other governmental benefits [457 U.S. 202, 248]    in this context. Is the Court suggesting that education is more "fundamental" than food, shelter, or medical care?

The Equal Protection Clause guarantees similar treatment of similarly situated persons, but it does not mandate a constitutional hierarchy of governmental services. JUSTICE POWELL, speaking for the Court in San Antonio Independent School Dist. supra, at 31, put it well in stating that to the extent this Court raises or lowers the degree of "judicial scrutiny" in equal protection cases according to a transient Court majority's view of the societal importance of the interest affected, we "assum[e] a legislative role and one for which the Court lacks both authority and competence." Yet that is precisely what the Court does today. See also Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S. 618, 655 -661 (1969) (Harlan, J., dissenting).

The central question in these cases, as in every equal protection case not involving truly fundamental rights "explicitly or implicitly guaranteed by the Constitution," San Antonio Independent School Dist., supra, at 33-34, is whether there is some legitimate basis for a legislative distinction between different classes of persons. The fact that the distinction is drawn in legislation affecting access to public education - as opposed to legislation allocating other important governmental benefits, such as public assistance, health care, or housing - cannot make a difference in the level of scrutiny applied.