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Plyler v. Doe

    Brief Fact Summary. Texas denied the children of illegal immigrants free public education. Legal representatives of such children brought suit, alleging Texas’s statute violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution).

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The State may not deny free public education to the children of undocumented immigrants.

    Facts. Texas law denied the right of undocumented children to attend public schools that were free to United States citizens and legal aliens.

    Issue. May Texas deny undocumented children access to public schools without violating the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution?

    Held. No. Appeals Court ruling affirmed.
    Justice William Brennan (J. Brennan) suggests that denial of benefits to those whose own conduct has brought them unlawfully into the State may be acceptable under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. However, the children are not in the State because of their own conduct. J. Brennan argues that punishing the parents’ illegal conduct by denying benefits to their children does not “comport with fundamental conceptions of justice.”
    The majority argues that the inability to read and write is an enormous cost to bear for any possible benefits the denial of access would accrue. Because the undocumented aliens cannot be a suspect class (by definition) and education is not considered a fundamental right, strict scrutiny is inappropriate. However, as the proposed state action will impose a “lifelong hardship,” the majority argues that a substantial goal must be furthered for the statute to be rational. According to the majority, no such showing is made.

    Dissent. Chief Justice Warren Burger (J. Burger) notes that “the level of scrutiny employed to strike down the Texas law applies only when illegal aliens children are deprived of a public education,” and accuses the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) of adopting a results-oriented approach. In the end, the dissent argues that illegal aliens have no expectation of any public benefits from the country in which they reside illegally.

    Discussion. In a cynical view, the majority is trying to create a ruling that supports equity and fair play (why should children suffer for the illegal acts of their parents?), while the dissent argues that illegal aliens should be availed of nothing from the government whose laws they have circumvented, neither with a firm grounding in the language of the Constitution.


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