Graham v. Richardson

403 U.S. 365

Case Year: 1971

Case Ruling: 9-0, Affirmed

Opinion Justice: Blackmun

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Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Black, Brennan, Burger, Douglas, Harlan, Marshall, Stewart, White


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1st Dissenting Opinion



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3rd Concurring Opinion



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In 1969, 64-year-old Carmen Richardson of Arizona, applied for public assistance when she became disabled. Richardson was a resident alien who had entered the United States lawfully from Mexico in 1956. She was denied benefits under an Arizona law that restricted assistance to U.S. citizens or those who had been lawful residents for at least fifteen years. Richardson failed the fifteen-year requirement. She sued John O. Graham, Arizona commissioner of public welfare, challenging the requirement as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause and her right to travel freely. The lower court ruled in her favor, and the state appealed.

At the Supreme Court level, Richardson's case was considered along with two appeals from Pennsylvania. In the first, Elsie Mary Jane Leger was a lawfully admitted resident alien from Scotland. She had unsuccessfully applied for public assistance when illness forced her to stop working. In the second, Beryl Jervis, a resident alien from Panama, was similarly denied benefits when she could no longer work. In both cases, the denial was based on state regulations that made U.S. citizenship a requirement for public assistance.



These are welfare cases. They provide yet another aspect of the widening litigation in this area. The issue here is whether the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prevents a State from conditioning welfare benefits either (a) upon the beneficiary's possession of United States citizenship, or (b) if the beneficiary is an alien, upon his having resided in this country for a specified number of years....

The appellants argue initially that the States, consistent with the Equal Protection Clause, may favor United

States citizens over aliens in the distribution of welfare benefit. It is said that this distinction involves no "invidious discrimination" ... for the State is not discriminating with respect to race or nationality. The Fourteenth Amendment provides, "[N]or shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." It has long been settled, and it is not disputed here, that the term "person" in this context encompasses lawfully admitted resident aliens as well as citizens of the United States and entitles both citizens and aliens to the equal protection of the laws of the State in which they reside. Yick Wo v. Hopkins(1886); Truax v. Raich (1915); Takahashi v. Fish & Game Comm'n [1948]. Nor is it disputed that the Arizona and Pennsylvania statutes in question create two classes of needy persons, indistinguishable except with respect to whether they are or are not citizens of this country. Otherwise qualified United States citizens living in Arizona are entitled to federally funded categorical assistance benefits without regard to length of national residency, but aliens must have lived in this country for 15 years in order to qualify for aid. United States citizens living in Pennsylvania, unable to meet the requirements for federally funded benefits, may be eligible for state-supported general assistance, but resident aliens as a class are precluded from that assistance. Under traditional equal protection principles, a State retains broad discretion to classify as long as its classification has a reasonable basis.... This is so in "the area of economics and social welfare."Dandridge v. Williams (1970). But the Court's decisions have established that classifications based on alienage, like those based on nationality or race, are inherently suspect and subject to close judicial scrutiny. Aliens as a class are a prime example of a "discrete and insular" minority ... for whom such heightened judicial solicitude is appropriate. Accordingly, it was said in Takahashi that "the power of a state to apply its laws exclusively to its alien inhabitants as a class is confined within narrow limits."

Arizona and Pennsylvania seek to justify their restrictions on the eligibility of aliens for public assistance solely on the basis of a State's "special public interest" in favoring its own citizens over aliens in the distribution of limited resources such as welfare benefits. It is true that this Court on occasion has upheld state statutes that treat citizens and noncitizens differently, the ground for distinction having been that such laws were necessary to protect special interests of the State or its citizens. Thus, in Truax v. Raich (1915), the Court, in striking down an Arizona statute restricting the employment of aliens, emphasized that "[t]he discrimination defined by the act does not pertain to the regulation or distribution of the public domain, or of the common property or resources of the people of the State, the enjoyment of which may be limited to its citizens as against both aliens and the citizens of other States....

Takahashi v. Fish & Game Comm'n (1948), however, cast doubt on the continuing validity of the special public-interest doctrine in all contexts. There the Court held that California's purported ownership of fish in the ocean off its shores was not such a special public interest as would justify prohibiting aliens from making a living by fishing in those waters while permitting all others to do so. It was said:

"The Fourteenth Amendment and the laws adopted under its authority thus embody a general policy that all persons lawfully in this country shall abide `in any state' on an equality of legal privileges with all citizens under non-discriminatory laws."

Whatever may be the contemporary vitality of the special public-interest doctrine in other contexts after Takahashi, we conclude that a State's desire to preserve limited welfare benefits for its own citizens is inadequate to justify Pennsylvania's making noncitizens ineligible for public assistance, and Arizona's restricting benefits to citizens and longtime resident aliens. First, the special public interest doctrine was heavily grounded on the notion that "[w]hatever is a privilege, rather than a right, may be made dependent upon citizenship." People v. Crane. But this Court now has rejected the concept that constitutional rights turn upon whether a governmental benefit is characterized as a "right" or as a "privilege." Sherbert v. Verner (1963); Shapiro v. Thompson (1969).... Second, as the Court recognized in Shapiro:

"[A] State has a valid interest in preserving the fiscal integrity of its programs It may legitimately attempt to limit its expenditures, whether for public assistance, public education, or any other program. But a State may not accomplish such a purpose by invidious distinctions between classes of its citizens.... The saving of welfare costs cannot justify an otherwise invidious classification."

Since an alien as well as a citizen is a "person" for equal protection purposes, a concern for fiscal integrity is no more compelling a justification for the questioned classification in these cases than it was in Shapiro.

Appellants, however, would narrow the application of Shapiro to citizens by arguing that the right to travel, relied upon in that decision, extends only to citizens and not to aliens. While many of the Court's opinions do speak in terms of the right of "citizens" to travel, the source of the constitutional right to travel has never been ascribed to any particular constitutional provision.... The Court has never decided whether the right applies specifically to aliens, and it is unnecessary to reach that question here. It is enough to say that the classification involved in Shapiro was subjected to strict scrutiny under the compelling state interest test, not because it was based on any suspect criterion such as race, nationality, or alienage, but because it impinged upon the fundamental right of interstate movement. As was said there, "The waiting-period provision denies welfare benefits to otherwise eligible applicants solely because they have recently moved into the jurisdiction. But in moving from State to State or to the District of Columbia appellees were exercising a constitutional right, and any classification which serves to penalize the exercise of that right, unless shown to be necessary to promote a compelling governmental interest, is unconstitutional." The classifications involved in the instant cases, on the other hand, are inherently suspect and are therefore subject to strict judicial scrutiny whether or not a fundamental right is impaired. Appellants' attempted reliance on Dandridge v. Williams (1970) is also misplaced, since the classification involved in that case (family size) neither impinged upon a fundamental constitutional right nor employed an inherently suspect criterion.

We agree with the three-judge court in the Pennsylvania case that the "justification of limiting expenses is particularly inappropriate and unreasonable when the discriminated class consists of aliens. Aliens like citizens pay taxes and may be called into the armed forces. Unlike the short-term residents in Shapiro, aliens may live within a state for many years, work in the state and contribute to the economic growth of the state."... There can be no "special public interest" in tax revenues to which aliens have contributed on an equal basis with the residents of the State.

Accordingly, we hold that a state statute that denies welfare benefits to resident aliens and one that denies them to aliens who have not resided in the United States for a specified number of years violate the Equal Protection Clause.

The judgments appealed from are affirmed.

It is so ordered.