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Shapiro v. Thompson


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394 U.S. 618 (1969), argued 29 Apr. 1968, reargued 23–24 Oct. 1968, decided 21 Apr. 1969 by vote of 6 to 3; Brennan for the Court, Stewart concurring, Warren, joined by Black and Harlan in dissent. This landmark decision considered three separate appeals involving the Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and District of Columbia one-year durational residency requirement for eligibility for welfare benefits. The lead case concerned Vivian M. Thompson, who, at the age of nineteen, was a single mother of one child and pregnant with another. She moved from her residence in Massachusetts to Connecticut to be with her mother and applied for but was denied welfare because she had not lived in Connecticut for one year prior to her application. A three-judge federal district court struck down the requirement as an unconstitutional burden on the right to travel and a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The two other lower courts decided similarly.

The Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts and emphasized that among fundamental personal liberties is the freedom to travel “throughout the length and breadth of our land uninhibited by statutes, rules, or regulations which unreasonably burden or restrict this movement” (p. 629). It held that the right to travel was a “fundamental” right that required the application of strict scrutiny. The state, however, could not demonstrate a “compelling state interest” in such a restrictive law, or that it had chosen the least restrictive alternative to achieve its legitimate ends. Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justice Hugo Black dissented, seeing no restriction on the right to travel. Justice John M. Harlan viewed the durational residency requirement as only an indirect and insubstantial inhibition on that right.

This decision provided a precedent for successful attacks on other residency requirements such as those for voting and for practicing law. The impact of the decision on the poor was considerable and as a result, many thousands received welfare assistance who otherwise would not have received it.

Sheldon Goldman

Subjects: Law.


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