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United States v. Virginia

Citation. 518 U.S. 515, 116 S.Ct. 2264, 135 L.Ed.2d 735 (1996).
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Brief Fact Summary.


Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The male-only admission policy of a state-run university, the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), violates the Equal Protection Clause.


Virginia’s public institutions of higher learning include a single-sex military college, Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Founded in 1839, its mission is to produce “citizen-soldiers.” VMI uses an “adversative method” modeled on schools of military instruction. This method features “physical rigor, mental stress, absolute equality of treatment, absence of privacy, minute regulation of behavior, and indoctrination in desirable values.” VMI cadets live in spartan barracks and  develop deep bonds with their fellow sufferers.

In 1990, prompted by a complaint filed with the Attorney General by a female high-school student seeking admission to VMI, the United States sued the Commonwealth of Virginia and VMI, alleging that VMI’s exclusively male admission policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The state of Virginia proposed a remedial plan under which the state would adopt a parallel program for women: Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership (VWIL). VWIL shared VMI’s mission; however, the VWIL program differed in academic offerings, methods of education, and financial resources.


Does Virginia’s exclusion of women from the educational opportunities provided by VMI deny to women the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Equal Protection Clause?


Yes, Virginia’s exclusion of women from the educational opportunities provided by VMI denies to women the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Equal Protection Clause.


Justice Scalia

The function of this Court is to preserve our society’s values regarding equal protection, not to revise them. Whatever abstract tests this Court may choose to devise, they cannot supersede the constant and unbroken national traditions that embody the people’s understanding of ambiguous constitutional texts. More specifically, when a practice not expressly prohibited by the Constitution bears the endorsement of a long tradition of unchallenged use, we have no proper basis for striking it down.

Under the constitutional principles announced today, single-sex public education is unconstitutional.


Justice Rehnquist

Two decades ago in Craig v. Boren, the Court determinMore Colors…ed that to withstand constitutional challenge, classifications by gender must serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to achievement of those objectives. While the majority adheres to this test, it also says that the state must demonstrate an “exceedingly persuasive justification” to support a gender-based classification. To avoid introducing potential confusion, I would have adhered more closely to the standard outlined in Craig v. Boren.


VMI’s male-only admissions policy is unconstitutional because it fails to show an “exceedingly persuasive justification” for its gender-biased admissions policy. Sex classifications may be used to compensate women for particular economic disabilities they have suffered, to promote equal employment opportunity, and to advance full development of the talent and capacities of the American people. However, such classifications may not be used to perpetuate the legal, social, and economic inferiority of women. Thus, Virginia violates the Equal Protection Clause.

Moreover, Virginia’s VWIL could not offer women the same benefits as VMI offered men. The VWIL could not offer women the same rigorous military training, faculty, courses, facilities, financial opportunities, or alumni reputation and connections that VMI affords its male cadets. For example, whereas VWIL’s endowment is about $19 million, VMI’s is $131 million. Additionally, while VMI offers degrees in liberal arts, sciences, and engineering, VWIL only offered bachelor of arts degrees.

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