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Washington v. Davis

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Bloomberg Law

Brief Fact Summary.

A competency examination issued to police officer candidates resulted in the denial of a disproportionately high number of black candidates.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Discriminatory impact cannot be the sole criterion for finding an equal protection violation.


The Petitioners, Washington and others (Petitioners), argued that a competency examination, issued to police officer candidates, was a tool used to exclude black applicants from the police force because the test resulted in the denial of a “disproportionately high number” of black police officer applicants. The Petitioners sought to invalidate the examination on the basis that it violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Specifically, the Petitioners argued that (1) the number of black police officers was not in proportion to the city’s population mix, (2) more blacks failed the test than whites, and (3) that the test has not been validated as an adequate measure of job performance. The competency examination was sustained by the District Court, but invalidated by the Court of Appeals.


Whether a qualifying competency examination to applicants for police officer positions is valid under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution) when the passing examinees result in a “highly discriminatory impact in screening out black candidates” for the position.


Justice Byron White (J. White) No. “Disproportionate impact is not irrelevant, but it is not the sole touchstone of an invidious racial discrimination forbidden by the Constitution.” Impact alone is not enough to invalidate the examination – there must be an intent or purpose to discriminate. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.
The Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution have only been used to invalidate state action that discriminates on the basis of race. A law or state action that only has a disproportionate impact on a particular race has not been declared to be unconstitutional.
Racial discrimination is subject to the strict-scrutiny standard of review. The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) finds that a disproportionate impact on a particular race of people does not provide for sufficient evidence that there is an intent to discriminate on the basis of race.
Concurrence. Justice John Paul Stevens (J. Stevens) It is quite difficult to draw a clear line distinguishing the difference “between discriminatory purpose and discriminatory impact.” In many discrimination cases, “the most probative evidence of intent will be objective evidence of what actually happened rather than evidence describing the subjective state of mind of the actor . . .”


A statute or a state action can not be held to be unconstitutional for the mere fact that the statute or the state action may result in an unfortunate impact on a particular race.

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