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City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center

    Citation. 473 U.S. 432, 105 S. Ct. 3249, 87 L. Ed. 2d 313, 1985 U.S. 118.

    Brief Fact Summary. A Texas city denied an applicant a special use permit for the operation of a group home for the mentally retarded. The Court of Appeals found that the ordinance violated the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution (Constitution).

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Denial of a permit for the operation of homes for the mentally retarded violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution where such denial is not rationally related to a legitimate governmental purpose.

    Facts. A zoning ordinance for the City of Cleburne (the City) permitted a wide variety of uses on a proposed cite of land, including for hospitals, for sanitariums and for homes for the aged, but excluded the operation of homes for the insane or feebleminded. The City, acting pursuant to the ordinance, denied an applicant a special use permit for the operation of a group home for the mentally retarded. The Court of Appeals held that the ordinance and the denial violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

    Issue.
    Did the denial of a permit for the operation of homes for the mentally retarded violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution?
    Did the lower court err in treating the mentally retarded as a “quasi-suspect class” and therefore subjecting the law to “middle level scrutiny?”

    Held. Yes and Yes. The Court of Appeals is affirmed in its judgment.
    Justice Byron White (J. White) stated that to withstand Equal Protection review, legislation that distinguishes between mentally retarded persons and others must be rationally related to further a legitimate governmental interest. The ordinance fails on both scores. The governmental interests, e.g., the avoidance of apprehensiveness of mentally retarded persons, are not legitimate. Moreover, the means the government employs are not rationally related to the achievement of its stated interests.

    Dissent. Justice Thurgood Marshall (J. Marshall) stated that the City’s ordinance clearly would have been valid under the traditional rational basis test. If the ordinance is to be invalidated, it must be done so pursuant to a standard more rigorous than the minimal rational basis test.
    Concurrence.
    Justice John Paul Stevens (J. Stevens) stated that the record demonstrates that the permit was denied because of the irrational fears of the neighboring property owners, rather than for the protection of the mentally retarded persons who would have lived in the home.
    Justice Thurgood Marshall (J. Marshall) stated that although he disagreed with the level of scrutiny the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) applied, he shared in the Supreme Court’s judgment that the ordinance is in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

    Discussion. One thing to consider is whether the Supreme Court in fact applied an intermediate standard of review in this case instead of the rational basis standard the Court asserted it was using. Given that the mentally retarded suffer from an immutable characteristic, should the courts accord discriminations against them with a heightened scrutiny standard of review?


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