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Important U.S. Supreme Court Cases: Washington v. Davis (1976)

Posted by Matt Schmidt | Apr 10, 2015 | 0 Comments

The Gist: Two black males applied for jobs with the Washington, DC police department and were turned down. They sued, claiming the department's hiring practices were discriminatory.  The Supreme Court held that laws must have a discriminatory impact and discriminatory purpose in order to be unconstitutional. Because there was no evidence of a discriminatory purpose behind the law, the Court ruled the police department's employment practices were constitutional.

The Details:

To hire employees, the DC police department used a verbal skills test--a standardized test--that a disproportionate amount of black people failed due to unequal educational opportunities. The two black males who sued the department argued that the disproportionality created a discriminatory employment practice that violated their equal protection rights and the Civil Rights Act. 

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court held that a law is not unconstitutional solely because it has a discriminatory impact; plaintiff's must prove that the purpose or motive behind making the law was discriminatory as well. The Court found no discriminatory purpose behind the verbal skills test.

This ruling puts a limit on the Equal Protection Clause and  makes it incredibly difficult for plaintiffs to bring discrimination suits under the Constitution. Legislatures are not going to outwardly admit  the purpose behind any law is to discriminate, so how are the victims supposed to prove that the law was intentionally created to cause discrimination? Further, why should the purpose of the law matter if the result is discriminatory? Assuming the original intent of creating a law was not to discriminate, but the effect of the law ends up causing discrimination, shouldn't the impact of the law matter more than why it was created? Doesn't the Court's line of reasoning conflict with the purpose of equal protection? These questions and many others have been raised by critics of the logic behind the Court's opinion.

It is important to note that the Court did not have to rule this way--there was plenty of legal authority to hold discriminatory impact alone is sufficient to violate Federal law.

About the Author

Matt Schmidt

Matt graduated from the James E Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona in passing the Arizona bar exam in 2010. Matt's primary interest in law focuses on general personal injury and insurance bad faith.

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