Washington v. Davis

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426 U.S. 229 (1976), argued 1 Mar. 1976, decided 7 June 1976 by vote of 7 to 2; White for the Court, Brennan and Marshall in dissent. This case involved the standard required to show unconstitutional racial discrimination, specifically the distinction between laws having a racially disproportionate impact and laws adopted with a racially discriminatory purpose or intent.

The case originated in 1970 as a suit by African-American police officers and unsuccessful applicants against the District of Columbia's Metropolitan Police Department. The suit alleged that the department's promotion and hiring policies were racially discriminatory. The rejected applicants contended that the department's use of a written personnel test (Test 21), which a disproportionately high number of African-American applicants failed, violated the equal protection component of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment as well as several federal and District of Columbia statutes.

The district court held for the police department. On appeal, the decision was reversed. The court of appeals, in examining whether Test 21 unconstitutionally discriminated against African-Americans, relied on an earlier Supreme Court decision, Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971). Under Griggs, which developed standards for interpreting the prohibition on employment discrimination in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a showing of disproportionate impact was sufficient to make out a rebuttable case of unconstitutional race discrimination. Applying the Griggs standard, the court of appeals held that because four times as many blacks as whites failed Test 21 and because the test had not been shown to be an adequate measure of job performance, the Constitution had been violated. It found that Test 21 had a racially discriminatory impact with no adequate justification for its use.

The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals’ decision, finding that it had erroneously applied standards developed for Title VII to the Constitution. It flatly rejected the disproportionate impact claim as sufficient to make out a case of unconstitutional racial discrimination. Rather, the Court held that an intent or purpose to discriminate had to be present for there to be a constitutional violation. The Court cited numerous opinions in jury discrimination, legislative apportionment, and school desegregation cases to show that its decisions had always required a showing of racially discriminatory intent or purpose for a holding of unconstitutional discrimination. Thus, the Title VII requirement for a showing of unlawful race discrimination differed from the showing required to make such a case under the Constitution.

The Court also addressed the question of what might count as proof of a racially discriminatory purpose or intent. It held that a racially discriminatory purpose could be inferred from the totality of relevant facts, including disproportionate impact. This relatively weak test was considerably strengthened, to the disadvantage of civil rights litigants, in Personnel Administrator v. Feeney (1979).

Focusing on Test 21, the Court argued that the fact that many more blacks failed the test than whites did not demonstrate that the original plaintiffs were being denied equal protection. It found the test neutral on its face and rationally related to a legitimate government purpose, the modest upgrading of the communicative skills of government employees. The Court took note of the efforts of the department to recruit black officers and the changing racial composition of the recruit classes. Putting the totality of the circumstances together, no constitutional violation was found.


Subjects: Law.

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