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City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc

    Brief Fact Summary. A Texas city, Cleburne (Petitioner) denied a special use permit for the operation of a group home for the mentally retarded. Cleburne Living Center (Respondent) purchased a building with the intention to house thirteen mentally retarded individuals.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The general rule is that legislation is presumed valid and will be sustained if the classification drawn by the statute is rationally related to a legitimate state interest.

    Facts. Petitioner denied a special use permit for the operation of a group home for the mentally retarded, acting pursuant to a municipal zoning ordinance that required permits for such homes. Respondent purchased a building at 201 Featherston Street in Cleburne, Texas, with the intention to house thirteen mentally retarded individuals. Respondent submitted a special use permit application to the City, which was denied. Respondent filed suit in federal district court alleging that the ordinance was invalid on its face and as applied to Respondent because it discriminated against the mentally retarded in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. The district court found the ordinance to be constitutional. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed and held that mental retardation was a “quasi-suspect” classification, which required intermediate scrutiny. Intermediate scrutiny required that the ordinance substantially further an
    important government interest. The court of appeals held that the ordinance did not substantially further any government interest. The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari.

    Issue. Was the ordinance on its face and as applied, constitutional?

    Held. No. However, the court of appeals was in error in holding that mental retardation should belong to a “quasi-suspect” classification, and that the rational basis test should apply.
    The general rule is that legislation is presumed valid and will be sustained if the classification drawn by the statute is rationally related to a legitimate state interest. However, when a statute makes classifications according to race, alienage, or national origin, a heightened scrutiny applies which means that the legislation must be suitably tailored to serve a compelling state interest.
    The court of appeals erred in holding that mental retardation should be afforded an intermediate level of scrutiny for constitutional purposes.
    To withstand equal protection review, legislation that distinguishes between the mentally retarded and others must be rationally related to a legitimate governmental purpose.
    Because the evidence did not reveal any rational basis for believing that the home would pose any special threat to the Petitioner’s legitimate interests, the court affirms the court of appeals’ decision to the extent that the ordinance is held invalid.

    Dissent. The dissent argued that if the majority were really applying the rational basis test to this case, it would have been decided differently. In other words, the dissent accuses the majority of applying a heightened scrutiny and simply calling it a general scrutiny.

    Discussion. It would seem that the court was trying to avoid calling the mentally retarded a suspect class on the grounds that the delineation between mentally retarded and normal would soon be blurred. The court did not want to embark on an ad hoc determination of what forms of mental retardation would fall into the suspect class and which ones would not.


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