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United States v. Virginia

Matthew Steinberg

InstructorMatthew Steinberg

CaseCast "What you need to know"

CaseCast –  "What you need to know"

United States v. Virginia

Citation. 518 U.S. 515, 116 S. Ct. 2264, 135 L. Ed. 2d 735, 1996 U.S. 4259.
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Brief Fact Summary.

Virginia Military Institute (VMI) was the only single-sexed school in Virginia. VMI used a highly adversarial method to train (male) leaders of the future. There was no equal educational opportunity to that of VMI in the State for women.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Gender-based classifications of the government can be defended only by exceedingly persuasive justifications. The State must show that its classification serves important governmental objectives and that the means employed are substantially related to those objectives. The justification must be genuine, not hypothesized. And it must not rely on over-broad generalizations about the differences between males and females.


VMI was the sole single-sexed school among Virginia’s 15 public institutions. VMI’s mission is to produce “citizen soldiers”, (male) leaders of the future. VMI achieves its mission through its “adversative method”, which is characterized by physical rigor, mental stress, absolute equality of treatment, absence of privacy, etc. At trial, the District Court acknowledged that women were missing out on a unique educational opportunity, but upheld the school’s policy on the rationale that admitting women could not be done without compromising the school’s adversative method. Pursuant to a decision by the Court of Appeals, the State established the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership (VWIL) for women. VWIL offered fewer courses than VMI and was run without the adversative method.


Did VMI represent a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause?


Yes. The Fourth Circuit’s initial judgment is affirmed.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (J. Ginsburg) stated that Virginia has shown no “exceedingly persuasive justification” for excluding all women. “Benign” justifications offered in defense of absolute exclusions will not be accepted automatically. The notion that admitting women would downgrade VMI’s stature and destroy the school’s adversity system was hardly proved.

Generalizations about the way women are or what is appropriate for them will no longer serve to justify denying opportunity to those whose talents and capabilities make them exceptions to the average description.
Moreover, VWIL does not qualify as VMI’s substitute. VWI’s student body, faculty, course offerings and facilities do not match VMI’s.


Justice Antonin Scalia (J. Scalia) said the virtue of a democratic system is that it enables people over time to be persuaded that the things they took for granted are not so and to change their laws accordingly. That system is destroyed if such types of decisions are removed from the democratic process and written into our United States Constitution (Constitution).

Concurrence. Chief Justice William Rehnquist (J. Rehnquist) argued that while he agreed with the Supreme Court’s conclusion, he disagreed with its analysis. The Supreme Court says here for the first time the state must show an “exceedingly persuasive” justification for gender-based classifications, thereby introducing uncertainty regarding the appropriate test. In addition, VWIL only fails as a remedy because it is of inferior quality to VMI.


This case calls into question what differences between men and women are real, i.e., legitimate basis upon which to draw distinctions, for constitutional purposes.

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