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Plyler v. Doe

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

Brief Fact Summary.

Plaintiffs challenged Texas law denying free public school enrollment to undocumented schoolchildren.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

If a state is to deny a discrete group of innocent children the free public education it offers other children, that denial must be justified by a showing that it furthers so substantial state interest.

Facts.

In 1975, Texas revised its education laws to withhold state funds for the education of children who were not legally admitted into the U.S. The revision also authorized local school districts to deny enrollment of children not legally admitted. Plaintiffs brought suit, challenging the law on equal protection grounds.

Issue.

Whether a state may deny undocumented children access to free public education that is otherwise provided to children who are citizens or legally admitted under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Held.

No. A state may not deny undocumented children access to free public education that is otherwise provided to children who are citizens or legally admitted under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Dissent.

Justice Burgher

Our inquiry should focus on and be limited to whether the legislative classification at issue bear a rational relationship to a legitimate state purpose.

Were it our business to set the nation’s social policy, I would agree without hesitation that it is senseless to deprive any children of elementary education. It is not, however. The fact that there are sound policy arguments against the law does not render the choice an unconstitutional one.

Concurrence.

Justice Marshall

I continue to believe an individual’s interest in education is fundamental. Additionally, this case demonstrates the continuing need to rejecting a rigid approach to equal protection analysis.

Justice Blackmun

Children should not be left on the streets uneducated. This unique class strikes at the heart of equal protection values. Denial of an education is analogue of denial of the right to vote.

Justice Powell

I write separately to emphasize the unique character of the case before us. A significant percentage of illegal alien children will remain in Texas as residents and many eventually will become citizens. It is hardly rational that anyone benefits from the creation of a subclass of illiterate persons, many of whom will remain in the state.

Discussion.

Undocumented aliens cannot be treated as a suspect class because their presence in this country in violation of federal law is not a constitutional irrelevancy. Nor is education a fundamental right. That said, the Texas law at issue imposes a lifetime hardship on a discrete class of children not accountable for their disabling status. The stigma of illiteracy will mark them for the rest of their lives.

It is difficult to understand precisely what the state hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates. No substantial state interest is being furthered. Judgement affirmed.


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