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City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center

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Brief Fact Summary.

A Texas city denied a special use permit for the operation of a group home for the mentally retarded, acting pursuant to a municipal zoning ordinance requiring permits for such homes. Respondent, who were denied a special use permit, challenged the Texas ordinance.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Where individuals in the group affected by a law have distinguishing characteristics relevant to interests the State has the authority to implement, the courts have been very reluctant to closely scrutinize legislative choices as to whether, how, and to what extent those interests should be pursued.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides that no State shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, U.S. Const. amend, XIV , § 1, requires the government to treat all similarly situated individuals alike.

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Facts.

A Texas city denied a special use permit for the operation of a group home for the mentally retarded, acting pursuant to a municipal zoning ordinance requiring permits for such homes. Respondent Jan Hannah purchased a building in the city of Cleburne, Texas, with the intention of leasing it to Cleburne Living Center (CLC) for the operation of a group home for the mentally retarded. CLC submitted an application for a special permit but the city denied the permit. CLC complained that the zoning ordinance was invalid because it discriminated against the mentally retarded in violation of the equal protection rights of CLC and its potential residents.

Issue.

Does a city ordinance that denies a use permit for the operation of a group home for the mentally retarded violate the equal protection?

Held.

Yes, requiring the permit in this case appears to rest on an irrational prejudice against the mentally retarded, including those who would occupy the facility and who would live under the closely supervised and highly regulated conditions expressly provided for by state and federal law. Further, the ordinance that distinguishes between the mentally retarded and others are not rationally related to a legitimate government purpose. Because the Texas city has failed to demonstrate that the classification’s relationship to its asserted goal is more than attenuated as to make the distinction sound and rational, the ordinance violates the Constitution.

Dissent.

Justice Marshall

In light of the importance of the interest at stake and the history of discrimination the retarded have suffered, the Equal Protection Clause requires the Court to do more than review the distinctions drawn by Cleburne’s zoning ordinance as if they appeared in a taxing statute or in economic or commercial legislation. With respect to a liberty so valued as the right to establish a home in the community, and so likely to be denied on the basis of irrational fears and outright hostility, heightened scrutiny is surely appropriate. In light of this scrutiny, the ordinance sweeps too broadly to dispel the suspicion that it rests on a bare desire to treat the retarded as outsiders, pariahs, who do not belong in the community.

Concurrence.

Justice Stevens

In every equal protection case, the proper questions are what class is harmed by the legislation and what public purpose is being served by the law. Every law that places the mentally retarded in a special class is not presumptively irrational. The Court of Appeals correctly viewed that the mentally retarded have been subjected to a history of unfair and severe mistreatment. Thus, the statute violates the equal protection.

Discussion.

It is undeniable that those who are mentally retarded have a reduced ability to cope with and function in the everyday world. Also, the distinctive legislative response, both national and state, to the plight of those who are mentally retarded demonstrates not only that they have unique problems, but also that the lawmakers have been addressing their difficulties in a manner that belies a continuing antipathy or prejudice and a corresponding need for more intrusive oversight by the judiciary. Such legislation singling out the retarded for special treatment reflects the real and undeniable differences between the retarded and others. Moreover, the legislative response negates any claim that the mentally retarded are politically powerless in the sense that they have no ability to attract the attention of the lawmakers. Any minority can be said to be powerless to assert direct control over the legislature. Finally, the legislation that distinguishes between the mentally retarded and others are not rationally related to a legitimate government purpose.


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