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Plyler v. Doe

Law Dictionary
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Law Dictionary

Featuring Black's Law Dictionary 2nd Ed.
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Constitutional Law Keyed to Stone

Citation. 457 U.S. 202, 102 S. Ct. 2382, 72 L. Ed. 2d 786, 1982 U.S. 124.

Brief Fact Summary. Pursuant to a Texas law, a local school district conditioned the enrollment in its schools of the children of illegal aliens on their payment of a “tuition fee.” The constitutionality of the statute was brought into question.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. The denial of the free public education to the children of undocumented aliens within a state’s borders must be justified by a showing that such denial substantially furthers a substantial state interest.


Facts. A Texas statute authorized local school districts to deny free public education to the children of illegal aliens. Accordingly, a local school district conditioned the enrollment of such children in its schools on their payment of a “tuition fee”. The stated purpose of the alienage-based classification was to conserve limited governmental resources. Apellees, the children of illegal entrants, challenged the constitutionality of the classification on equal protection grounds.

Issue. By which standard of review should the courts evaluate the alienage-based classification at issue?
Was the policy of denying free public education to the children of undocumented aliens consistent with the mandates of equal protection?

Held. Intermediate level scrutiny and no.
Although public education is not a “right” guaranteed by the United States Constitution, it is neither some mere “governmental benefit” indistinguishable from other forms of social welfare. An education is preservative of rights guaranteed by the Constitution and necessary to participate fully in our free democratic style of government.
Appellants failed to prove that the classification bore a substantial relation to a substantial state interest. The classification cannot be said to substantially further the State interest of preserving social service resources. By denying public education to certain children within its borders, the State will create a subclass of illiterates, thereby causing a drain on State social resources. Moreover, Appellees have not been shown to be less likely to remain in the State than other children. Therefore, the classification cannot be justified on the grounds that it singles out children who will not put their State supported educations to productive use within the State.

Dissent. Chief Justice Burger: Once it was established that illegal aliens are not a suspect class and that education is not a fundamental right, our analysis should have focused on whether the legislative classification bore a rational relationship to a legitimate state purpose. It is not irrational for a State to conclude that it owes a lesser responsibility to persons not legally present in the United States.
Concurrence. Justice Marshall: Justice Marshall concurs in the opinion herein without departing from his dissenting opinion in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez.
Justice Blackmun: Justice Blackmun concurs in this opinion and believe this one to be consistent with that in Rodriguez.
Justice Powell: A legislative classification that occasions the creation of an underclass of future citizens cannot be said to comport with one of the central meanings of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Discussion. The Supreme Court seems to find a “semi-fundamental” right here by employing a line of reasoning similar to that of Justice Marshall in his dissenting opinion in Rodriguez. In that case, Justice Marshall suggested that the Supreme Court apply a range of standards of review, intermediate between rational basis and strict scrutiny, of which the level of scrutiny for a particular case would depend on the governmental interest at stake and the invidiousness of the discrimination at issue.

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