Personnel Administrator of Mass. v. Feeney

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In Personnel Administrator of Mass. v. Feeney, 442 U.S. 256, 279 (1979), the U.S. Supreme Court by a 7-2 margin upheld the constitutionality of the Massachusetts veterans' preference statute, Mass. Gen. Laws Ann., ch. 31, § 23, against a challenge that it discriminates against women in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Under ch. 31, § 23, all veterans who qualify for state civil service positions must be considered for appointment ahead of any qualifying nonveterans. The preference operates overwhelmingly to the advantage of males, and a non-veteran woman challenged it as discriminatory.

Justice Potter Stewart wrote the decision for the Court. Justices John Paul Stevens concurred, joined by Justice Byron White, agreed to uphold the law because it "discriminated" against a large number of (non-veteran) males as well as females. Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall dissented.

This decision is cited today for two statements:

  • intentional discrimination requires action taken “at least in part because of, not merely in spite of, its adverse effects” on a protected class[1]
  • the settled rule that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal laws, not equal results.[2]

The opinion for the Court explained that the decisions of Washington v. Davis, and Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Dev. Corp. recognize that when a neutral law has a disparate impact upon a group that has historically been the victim of discrimination, an unconstitutional purpose may still be at work. But those cases signaled no departure from the settled rule that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal laws, not equal results. Davis upheld a job-related employment test that white people passed in proportionately greater numbers than Negroes, for there had been no showing that racial discrimination entered into the establishment or formulation of the test. Arlington Heights upheld a zoning board decision that tended to perpetuate racially segregated housing patterns, since, apart from its effect, the board's decision was shown to be nothing more than an application of a constitutionally neutral zoning policy. Those principles apply with equal force to a case involving alleged gender discrimination.

The Court continued:

When a statute gender-neutral on its face is challenged on the ground that its effects upon women are disproportionably adverse, a twofold inquiry is thus appropriate. The first question is whether the statutory classification is indeed neutral in the sense that it is not gender based. If the classification itself, covert or overt, is not based upon gender, the second question is whether the adverse effect reflects invidious gender-based discrimination. See Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Dev. Corp. In this second inquiry, impact provides an "important starting point," 429 U.S., at 266, but purposeful discrimination is "the condition that offends the Constitution." Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1, 16.

References

  1. 442 U.S. at 279.
  2. Id. at 273.
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