GRAHAM v. RICHARDSON, 403 U.S. 365 (1971)

403 U.S. 365
Decided June 14, 1971 *  

MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivered the opinion of the Court.

These are welfare cases. They provide yet another aspect of the widening litigation in this area. The issue here is whether the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prevents a State from conditioning welfare benefits either (a) upon the beneficiary's possession of United States citizenship, or (b) if the beneficiary is an alien, upon his having resided in this country for a specified number of years. The facts are not in dispute.


No. 609. This case, from Arizona, concerns the State's participation in federal categorical assistance programs.... Arizona Rev. Stat. Ann., Tit. 46, Art. 2, as amended, provides for assistance to persons permanently and totally disabled (APTD). Arizona Rev. Stat. Ann. 46-233, as amended in 1962, reads:

A like eligibility provision conditioned upon citizenship or durational residence appears in 46-252 (2), providing old-age assistance, and in 46-272 (4), providing assistance to the needy blind. 

Appellee Carmen Richardson, at the institution of this suit in July 1969, was 64 years of age. She is a lawfully admitted resident alien. She emigrated from Mexico in 1956 and since then has resided continuously in Arizona. She became permanently and totally disabled. She also met all other requirements for eligibility for APTD benefits except the 15-year residency specified for aliens by 46-233 (A) (1). She applied for benefits but was denied relief solely because of the residency provision.

Mrs. Richardson instituted her class action in the District of Arizona against the Commissioner of the State's Department of Public Welfare seeking declaratory relief, an injunction against the enforcement of 46-233(A) (1), 46-252 (2), and 46-272 (4), and the award of amounts allegedly due. She claimed that Arizona's alien residency requirements violate the Equal Protection Clause and the constitutional right to travel; that they conflict with the Social Security Act and are thus overborne by the Supremacy Clause; and that the regulation of aliens has been pre-empted by Congress....


The appellants argue initially that the States, consistent with the Equal Protection Clause, may favor United States citizens over aliens in the distribution of welfare benefits. It is said that this distinction involves no "invidious discrimination"...for the State is not discriminating with respect to race or nationality.

The Fourteenth Amendment provides, "[N]or shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." It has long been settled, and it is not disputed here, that the term "person" in this context encompasses lawfully admitted resident aliens as well as citizens of the United States and entitles both citizens and aliens to the equal protection of the laws of the State in which they reside. Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, 369 (1886) . Nor is it disputed that the Arizona statute in question creates two classes of needy persons, indistinguishable except with respect to whether they are or are not citizens of this country. Otherwise qualified United States citizens living in Arizona are entitled to federally funded categorical assistance benefits without regard to length of national residency, but aliens must have lived in this country for 15 years in order to qualify for aid.... 

Under traditional equal protection principles, a State retains broad discretion to classify as long as its classification has a reasonable basis. This is so in "the area of economics and social welfare." But the Court's decisions have established that classifications based on alienage, like those based on nationality or race, are inherently suspect and subject to close judicial scrutiny. Aliens as a class are a prime example of a "discrete and insular" minority (see United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144, 152 -153, n. 4 (1938)) for whom such heightened judicial solicitude is appropriate. Accordingly, "the power of a state to apply its laws exclusively to its alien inhabitants as a class is confined within narrow limits."

Arizona seeks to justify its restrictions on the eligibility of aliens for public assistance solely on the basis of a State's "special public interest" in favoring its own citizens over aliens in the distribution of limited resources such as welfare benefits. It is true that this Court on occasion has upheld state statutes that treat citizens and noncitizens differently, the ground for distinction having been that such laws were necessary to protect special interests of the State or its citizens.... In Crane v. New York, 239 U.S.195 (1915), the Court affirmed the judgment in People v. Crane, 214 N. Y. 154, 108 N. E. 427 (1915), upholding a New York statute prohibiting the employment of aliens on public works projects. The New York court's opinion contained Mr. Justice Cardozo's well-known observation:

On the same theory, the Court has upheld statutes that, in the absence of overriding treaties, limit the right of noncitizens to engage in exploitation of a State's natural resources, restrict the devolution of real property to aliens, or deny to aliens the right to acquire and own land. 

Takahashi v. Fish & Game Comm'n, 334 U.S. 410 (1948), however, cast doubt on the continuing validity of the special public-interest doctrine in all contexts. There the Court held that California's purported ownership of fish in the ocean off its shores was not such a special public interest as would justify prohibiting aliens from making a living by fishing in those waters while permitting all others to do so. It was said:

Whatever may be the contemporary vitality of the special public-interest doctrine in other contexts after Takahashi, we conclude that a State's desire to preserve limited welfare benefits for its own citizens is inadequate to justify Arizona's restricting benefits to citizens and longtime resident aliens. First, the special public interest doctrine was heavily grounded on the notion that "[w]hatever is a privilege, rather than a right, may be made dependent upon citizenship." But this Court now has rejected the concept that constitutional rights turn upon whether a governmental benefit is characterized as a "right" or as a "privilege." Second, as the Court recognized in Shapiro:

Since an alien as well as a citizen is a "person" for equal protection purposes, a concern for fiscal integrity is no more compelling a justification for the questioned classification in these cases than it was in Shapiro.....

Accordingly, we hold that a state statute that denies welfare benefits to resident aliens and one that denies them to aliens who have not resided in the United States for a specified number of years violate the Equal Protection Clause....

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