Equal Protection, Poverty, and Inequality of Wealth
The issue: Should heightened scrutiny be applied when laws substantially burden or deny the ability to the poor to access justice, the ballot, or a good public education?  Does the government have a constitutional obligation to provide some minimum level of benefits or services to the poor?


The Court has never held that classifications that place special hardships on poor people are subject to heightened scrutiny, despite arguments (accepted by at least a couple of justices) that they should do just that.  Wealth classifications, like other classifications not involving a suspect group or substantially burdening a fundamental right, are subject only to a rational basis review.  Typically, the government need only show that the classification is rationally related to serving some legitimate state interest.

In some cases, however, when the government places significant financial obstacles in the way of poor people who are seeking to exercise particularly basic or important (the Court might call them "fundamental") rights, the Court will apply a higher level of scrutiny.  For example, the Court has struck down state laws imposing a poll tax on voters (Harper v State Board of Elections (1966)), a hefty filing fee for having one's name placed on the ballot for public office (Bullock v Carter (1972)), a filing fee for persons seeking a divorce (Boddie v Connecticut)(1971), and a "record preparation fee" for a parent seeking judicial review of a decision terminating her parental rights (M.L.B v S.L.J. (1996)). 

M. L. B. v S. L. J. (1996) is illustrative of cases that have applied heightened scrutiny to financial roadblocks imposed by states that stand in the way of indigents getting equal access to justice with respect to issues that substantially affect liberty or family life.  In M. L. B., the Court struck down a Mississippi law that prevented an indigent mother from appealing a termination of parental rights order because she could not pay a $2000 transcript-processing fee.  The deprivation involved (a complete severing of parent-child bonds), Justice Ginsburg wrote for the Court, is "devastating" and heightened scrutiny is justified.  The modest cost savings to the state resulting from the mandatory fee was not a sufficiently compelling reason to impose the burden that Mississippi's law did.

In the area of access to justice, the Court also has concluded that states must provide free trial transcripts to indigents (Griffin v Illinois (1956)), free attorneys for indigents to appeal criminal convictions (Douglas v California (1963)), and a free psychiatric assistance for indigent defendants when there is significant evidence of a mental illness that might be relevant to his defense (Ake v Oklahoma)(1985))

While the Court has used the Equal Protection Clause to strike down financial roadblocks to the ballot and to equal justice, the Court has been unwilling to see the Constitution as establishing any obligation on the part of government to provide a minimum level of welfare, housing, or education to all of its citizens.  In Dandridge v Williams (1970), for example, the Court rejected an argument that Maryland's method of calculating welfare benefits denied equal protection of the laws to large families who might be left to survive and take care of her family on $240 per month.

In San Antonio v Rodriquez (1973), the Court on a 5 to 4 vote rejected arguments that Texas's method of funding its public schools primarily through property taxes (which resulted in wealthy districts being able to spend much more per pupil on education than poor districts) violated the Equal Protection Clause.  Rodriquez made clear the Court's desire to confine strict scrutiny to cases involving rights that are either explicitly or implicitly guaranteed by the Constitution.  It will NOT be enough, the Court said, that a right is very important or has a clear nexus to the exercise of constitutional rights.  In upholding a Texas state financing scheme that left poor school districts with substantially less money to fund education than richer districts, the Court said that however important education might be, and however helpful education might be to voting or the exercise of First Amendment rights, it is not a "fundamental right" of the sort that triggers strict scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause.  Justice Powell's opinion for the Court in Rodriquez left open, however, the possibility that an outright denial of any public education at all to the poor might be found to be unconstitutional.  The Court found that the financing method adopted by Texas served the state's legitimate interest of giving local districts more control over their school systems and their deployment of resources. 

In Kadrmas v Dickinson Public Schools (1988), the Court rejected the arguments by poor parents of North Dakota school children that a school district's decision to charge parents for a portion of the costs of transporting their kids to public school by bus denied them the equal protection of the laws.  The Court suggested that Dickinson was under no constitutional obligation to operate school buses at all, so it could hardly be faulted for adopting user fees to cover part of the cost of the service.  In dissent, Justices Marshall and Brennan accused the majority of "callous indifference to realities of life for the poor."


Dandridge v Williams (1970)(welfare)
Bullock v Carter (1972)(access to the ballot)
M. L. B. v S. L. J. (1996)(access to justice)

San Antonio Ind. Sch'l Dis. v Rodriquez (1973)(access to quality education)
Kadrmas v Dickinson Public Schools (1988)(access to education)



1.  Should the Court in San Antonio v Rodriquez have recognized education as a fundamental right?  Would the result have been different if Texas simply refused to fund any public education at all? 
2.  How does one square Rodriquez with other cases that found rights not explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution (the right to vote in state elections, the right not to have to pay hefty fees to appear as a candidate on a ballot, the right to a free transcript in a criminal appeal, the right to travel from state to state) to be "fundamental," and thus triggering strict scrutiny?
3.  Do you agree with the majority that the Texas school financing scheme furthers a significant state interest?
4.  Interestingly, the Texas Supreme Court subsequently ruled that the disparities in the state's funding plan for schools violated the Texas Constitution.  A number of other state supreme courts reached similar conclusions with respect to their own state laws that financed public schools in large part through the use of local property taxes.
5.  Fees for criminal appeals, divorce, paternity tests, and transcripts for appeal of termination of parental rights orders (see M. L. B.) have all been found to violate the Fourteenth Amendment, even though the costs imposed by the state would fall on all alike, whether rich or poor, black or white.  Should such neutral laws be found to violate equal protection principles, or would a due process analysis seem more appropriate?
6.  Do you agree or disagree with Marshall and Brennan's argument in Kadrmas that higher scrutiny should apply whenever the government puts barriers between poor people and basic tools and opportunities?

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