Plyler v. Doe

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457 U.S. 202 (1982), argued 1 Dec. 1981, decided 15 June 1982 by a vote of 5 to 4; Brennan for the Court, Burger, White, Rehnquist, and O’Connor in dissent. Texas refused to finance the education of undocumented children and authorized local districts to exclude these children from enrollment in free public schools. The Supreme Court held this practice to be repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, which guarantees that “no State shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” [emphasis added]. Texas argued that the phrase “within its jurisdiction” excluded illegal aliens from equal protection guarantees. The Court disagreed, holding that these guarantees extended to each person, regardless of citizenship or immigration status, inside the state's perimeter and subject to state laws.

The Court, however, refused to apply strict scrutiny since education was not a fundamental right and undocumented aliens did not constitute a suspect class because their own conscious actions caused their illegal status. The Court majority, however, did apply an escalated standard of protection (“heightened scrutiny”), appropriate because of education's special and lasting importance relative to other social welfare benefits and because undocumented children, unlike adults, lacked responsibility for their illegal situation. State denial of this especially important benefit to a discrete class of innocents violated equal protection, the Court stated, unless the policy furthered some substantial governmental interest.

Criticizing the majority for employing a result-oriented jurisprudence, flawed reasoning, and an inappropriate standard of review, Chief Justice Warren Burger argued that Texas’ exclusionary law was constitutionally valid because it rationally furthered legitimate state interests. Later, many of these children, undocumented in 1982, acquired legal residency under the federal government's amnesty program. The propriety of the majority's jurisprudence, however, is still debated.

Richard A. Gambitta

Subjects: Law.

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