Washington v. Davis 426 U.S. 229 (1976)

Author:Theodore Eisenberg

Page 2862

This landmark decision concerns the relevance of a decision maker's motives in EQUAL PROTECTION cases. Black candidates for the Washington, D.C., police force alleged that the District's selection criteria had an adverse discriminatory effect upon the employment prospects of minorities and that the effect violated the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT'S equal protection clause and ANTIDISCRIMINATION LEGISLATION. In an opinion by Justice BYRON R. WHITE, the Supreme Court held that discriminatory effects, standing alone, are insufficient to establish an equal protection violation. Proof of purposeful discrimination is necessary. The Court also rejected the candidates' statutory claim. In an opinion that did not address the constitutional question, Justice WILLIAM J. BRENNAN, joined by Justice THURGOOD MARSHALL, dissented from the Court's disposition of the statutory issue. In a concurring opinion, Justice JOHN PAUL STEVENS discussed the relationship between discriminatory effects and proof of discriminatory intent and articulated his reasons for rejecting the statutory claim.

In settling a long-standing controversy over whether a decision maker's motives may constitute the basis for an equal protection claim, the Court climbed two interesting doctrinal hills. Prior to Davis, cases such as Whitcomb v. Chavis (1971) and White v. Regester (1973) expressly had suggested that unintentional disproportionate effects on a minority may constitute the basis for an equal protection claim. Justice White's opinion ignores these precedents but warns against the broad consequences of such a HOLDING. Such a rule "would raise serious questions about, and perhaps invalidate, a whole range of tax, welfare, public service, regulatory, and licensing statutes that may be more burdensome to the poor and to the average black than to the more affluent white."

In addition, contrary to Davis 's holding, a line of opinions dating back to FLETCHER V. PECK (1810) and reaffirmed in UNITED STATES V. O ' BRIEN (1968) and PALMER V. THOMPSON (1971), clearly had stated that legislators' motives may not form the basis of constitutional attacks on statutes. Without...

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