When discussing the equal protection of the law, it is important to realize that there are certain classifications of individuals who receive more constitutional protection. For instance, a law that classifies individuals based on their race will receive a heightened sense of scrutiny whereas classifications based on age may receive a lesser scrutiny. There are generally three levels of scrutiny:

  • Rational Basis
  • Intermediate
  • Strict

Rational basis simply asks 1) what classification the law is targeting (means = classification), 2) is there a rational reason the government is targeting that class (end = goal/reason), and 3) is there a connection between that target and the reason for doing so (fit do means accomplish the goal).

The idea of equal protection is to treat “similarly situated people the same.” However, every law sets classifications based on age, ability, scores, etc. Thus, the default for all of these classifications results in rational basis review.

The definition adopted by the bar exam for rational basis is, “The plaintiff has the burden to show that the law is not rationally related to a legitimate governmental purpose.” On the other hand, the definition for strict scrutiny is, “The defendant has the burden to show that the law is narrowly tailored to meet a compelling governmental purpose.”

New York City Transit Authority v. Beazer

440 U.S. 568 (1979).

Beazer won in trial and on appeal.


Can the state limit the employment of individuals taking methadone.


The classification of the targeted individuals determines what kind of scrutiny is received. Rational basis may be utilized if the targeted class does not merit higher protection. At that point, the court looks to see if the state had a reasonable reason for targeting the class.


The law does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, reversed.


Methadone was a drug utilized in controlling the effects of heroin for individuals who were battling heroin additions.

The New York City Transit Authority had a policy that denied employment to any individual who was taking heroin.


About 2/3rds of the individuals taking methadone are employable while about 1/3rd is not. The trial court found this to be significant enough to say that a rule limiting all users was not narrowly tailored (the policy targeted too broad of a group).

Although the policy may have been inadvisable (according to the court), those taking methadone do not constitute a protected class (not a suspect class). As such, under the Equal Protection clause, these individuals are subject to rational basis and not a heightened scrutiny. Because there is a state police power interest at stake (1/3rd of the individuals are not employable), the law does not violate the clause.

The dissent argues that this is a unique class of individuals. Because the class is unique from the general population, they merit the same protection granted to the general population. Therefore, the district court was right to limit the policy to affect only those who are unemployable. Additionally, this law is under inclusive because it does not limit other people who may be poor employees (alcoholics, mental patients, diabetics, etc.).

Additional Notes

This case is a good example of deferential rational basis. That is, the court is deferring to the judgment of the regulating body (considering this is not a suspect class) in determining whether they should intervene in this policy judgment.

U.S. Department of Agriculture v. Moreno

413 U.S. 528 (1973).


The provision violated the Equal Protection Clause


The Food Stamp Act of 1964 prohibited the distribution of food stamps to households where at least one individual in the household was unrelated to those receiving the stamps.

Moreno had a child with a hearing disability but could not afford housing near a private hearing school. So, she moved in with another individual who they were not related to. As such, her food stamps were terminated.


The majority says that although this is an unsuspected class (thus rational basis applies), there was no rational connection between the law and the desired result. The result in the law was to strengthen the agricultural economy (obviously not happening here). Other legislative intent shows that the purpose was to restrict “hippies” from living together. This intent is not a legitimate government purpose justifying the enforcement of the provision here. Thus, this is a violation of the Equal Protection clause.

The dissent argues that there is a government purpose. That is, to prevent unrelated individuals from freeloading those who are eligible for food stamps. The court’s here are acting as a super-legislature.

Additional Notes

Ultimately, under rational basis, you can pass a law that is over broad or under broad, but it cannot facially target a politically unpopular group (e.g., hippies).

City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center

473 U.S. 432 (1985).


The law does not pass rational basis review.


A zoning permit was created near a neighborhood and school that would build hospitals and assisted living homes for the elderly. However, the permit restricted the area from being used to build hospice for alcohol and addition rehab and the mentally ill.

The reasons provided by the city for the restriction was 1) the school might bully those who are mentally ill in the home and 2) the lot upon which the home would be build resided on a flood plane.


Class: Mentally retarded

Stated Legitimate Purpose: Concerned about neighbor’s attitude.

Related? Nope, fear of attitude (students might bully, but there are also students with the condition in the school) is not a good reason to deny a class different from others the same protection.

Additional Notes

Once again, this is a case where the court’s applied rational basis and determined that the statute was unconstitutional. Why? It was prejudicial.

Railway Express Agency v. New York

336 U.S. 106 (1949).


The regulation is not a violation of the equal protection clause.


New York prohibited “advertising vehicles.” That is, vehicles whose sole purpose was to advertise. However, delivery vehicles that wanted to have advertisements was permissible (they have a purpose more than advertising).


Just because there are two different kinds of advertising and one is targeted while the other is not does not bring in the equal protection clause. If that was the case, then all advertising would be restricted (including Times Square). The purpose was to remove distractions and that has been accomplished with this regulation.

Additional Notes

The argument is that the distinction between the two different kinds of vehicles is arbitrary (there is no difference). Although the court does not disagree with that, they use a lenient rational review. The justification by the court was, “The local authorities may well have concluded that those who advertise their own wares on their trucks do not present the same traffic problem in view of the nature or extent of the advertising which they use.” The odd part about this is the phrase “may well have concluded.” That is, the court is assuming, rather than having a specific fact to show the legislative intent.

Additionally, the court engages in a “one step at the time” kind of reasoning. That is, Congress may not be able to restrict all distracting advertising now, but has the ability and support to limit some distractions now. Maybe later the legislature will restrict more.

The takeaway:

  • When using rational basis, the court may make up reasons of the legitimate governmental purpose to uphold the law.

The content contained in this article may contain inaccuracies and is not intended to reflect the opinions, views, beliefs, or practices of any academic professor or publication. Instead, this content is a reflection on the author’s understanding of the law and legal practices.

Will Laursen

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