Today in 1982: The Supreme Court decides Plyler v. Doe

June 15, 2012

Today in Legal HistoryThe issue of immigration – specifically, that of undocumented immigration – is one of the most volatile sociopolitical issues today.

Though there are many different facets of the opposition to immigration, a major point of argument of this camp is that undocumented immigrants consume government resources – such as Social Security or public schooling – yet do not pay the respective taxes.

Thus, the contention goes, undocumented immigrants are “free-riders” that take advantage of lawful U.S. residents.

The facts don’t unequivocally corroborate this claim, but a lack of strong factual support typically doesn’t stop legislatures from taking action.

For example, several states, such as Alabama and South Carolina, require proof of legal residency as a condition of admission to state public colleges and universities (Georgia’s state senate passed a similar bill earlier this year).

But why don’t these states ban unlawful immigrants from attending public schools prior to the post-secondary level?

Put simply: because they can’t.

On June 15, 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court made its ruling in Plyler v. Doe, holding that a state may not discriminate against children who are not legal residents by barring them from admission to public schools.

Plyler struck down as unconstitutional a Texas statute enacted in 1975 to do just that – it withheld funds from local school districts for the education of children who were not “legally admitted” into the U.S.

How the statute was found unconstitutional is somewhat of a legal oddity.

The five-Justice Plyler majority didn’t find that public education is a fundamental right.

Nor did it find that undocumented immigrants are a suspect class under the Fourteenth Amendment, which would invoke strict scrutiny, the harshest level of review, against any statute that discriminates against the class.

Instead, though the Plyler majority indeed found that the Texas statute violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause, it created a special classification that only that applied to the education of undocumented immigrant minors.

So, essentially, the Plyler Supreme Court carved out a special exception that only applied in Plyler.

This special exception used “intermediate scrutiny” to review the law in Plyler, requiring that, in order for the law to stand, the law must further an important interest of the state in a way that is substantially related to that interest.

As constitutional law buffs may know, the Supreme Court uses “intermediate scrutiny” in those infrequent cases where strict scrutiny does not apply, but the Court regardless wants to strike down the law at issue.

In Plyler, there was no legal precedent to support the use of strict scrutiny, but the Court nonetheless sought to strike down the Texas law because of the “inestimable toll” that denying public education takes “on the social, economic, intellectual, and psychological well-being of the individual.”

The Plyler majority was particularly concerned that the law discriminated against “a discrete class of children not accountable for their disabling status” and who “can neither affect their parents’ conduct nor their own undocumented status.”

As mentioned earlier, Plyler was decided 5-4 along largely ideological lines.

The decision was contentious at the time of the ruling, and continues to incense ideological opponents of undocumented immigration today.

However, despite the recent Supreme Court’s trend toward supporting state-level crackdowns on unlawful immigration, Plyler has endured.

The ruling will likely continue to endure, too – perhaps because of the substantial social and economic implications of denying basic education to millions of U.S. residents, or perhaps because most of the Justices don’t really want to pull a bunch of kids out of school.

Whatever the reason, the 30-year-old Plyler ruling remains one of the few Supreme Court victories for undocumented immigrants and their advocates.