Kadrmas v. Dickinson Pub. Schs., 487 U.S. 450 (1988)

Author: Justice Marshall

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Kadrmas v. Dickinson Pub. Schs., 487 U.S. 450 (1988)

JUSTICE MARSHALL, with whom JUSTICE BRENNAN joins, dissenting.

In San Antonio Independent School Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973), I wrote that the Court’s holding was a

retreat from our historic commitment to equality of educational opportunity and [an] unsupportable acquiescence in a system which deprives children in their earliest years of the chance to reach their full potential.

Id. at 71 (dissenting). Today, the Court continues the retreat from the promise of equal educational opportunity by holding that a school district’s refusal to allow an indigent child who lives 16 miles from the nearest school to use a schoolbus service without paying a fee does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Because I do not believe that this Court should sanction discrimination against the poor with respect to "perhaps the most important function of state and local governments," Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954), I dissent.

The Court’s opinion suggests that this case does not concern state action that discriminates against the poor with regard to the provision of a basic education. The Court notes that the particular governmental action challenged in this case involves the provision of transportation, rather than the provision of educational services. See ante at 459-460, 460-461. Moreover, the Court stresses that the denial of transportation to Sarita Kadrmas did not in fact prevent her from receiving an education; notwithstanding the denial of bus service, Sarita’s family ensured that she attended school each day. See ante at 458, 460-461.{1} To the Court, then, this case presents no troublesome questions; indeed, the Court’s facile analysis suggests some perplexity as to why this case ever reached this Court.

I believe the Court’s approach forgets that the Constitution is concerned with "sophisticated as well as simpleminded modes of discrimination." Lane v. Wilson, 307 U.S. 268, 275 (1939). This case involves state action that places a special burden on poor families in their pursuit of education. Children living far from school can receive a public education only if they have access to transportation; as the state court noted in this case, "a child must reach the schoolhouse door as a prerequisite to receiving the educational opportunity offered therein." 402 N.W.2d 897, 901 (N.D.1987). Indeed, for children in Sarita’s position, imposing a fee for transportation is no different in practical effect from imposing a fee directly for education. Moreover, the fee involved in this case discriminated against Sarita’s family because it necessarily fell more heavily upon the poor than upon wealthier members of the community.{2} Cf. Bullock v. Carter, 405 U.S. 134, 144 (1972) (voting system based on flat fees "falls with unequal weight on voters, as well as candidates, according to their economic status"); Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12, 17, n. 11 (1956) (opinion of Black, J.) (state law imposing flat fee for trial transcript is "nondiscriminatory on its face," but "grossly discriminatory in its operation"). This case therefore presents the question whether a State may discriminate against the poor in providing access to education. I regard this question as one of great urgency.

As I have stated on prior occasions, proper analysis of equal protection claims depends less on choosing the "formal label" under which the claim should be reviewed than upon identifying and carefully analyzing the real interests at stake.Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc., 473 U.S. 432, 478 (1985) (MARSHALL, J., dissenting); see Selective Service System v. Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, 468 U.S. 841, 876 (1984) (MARSHALL, J., dissenting). In particular, the Court should focus on

the character of the classification in question, the relative importance to individuals in the class discriminated against of the governmental benefits that they do not receive, and the asserted state interests in support of the classification.

Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, 521 (1970) (MARSHALL, J., dissenting); see San Antonio Independent School Dist. v. Rodriguez, supra, at 98-99 (MARSHALL, J., dissenting). Viewed from this perspective, the discrimination inherent in the North Dakota statute fails to satisfy the dictates of the Equal Protection Clause.

The North Dakota statute discriminates on the basis of economic status. This Court has determined that classifications based on wealth are not automatically suspect. See, e.g., Maher v. Roe, 432 U.S. 464, 470-471 (1977). Such classifications, however, have a measure of special constitutional significance. See, e.g., McDonald v. Board of Election Comm’rs of Chicago, 394 U.S. 802, 807 (1969) ("[A] careful examination on our part is especially warranted where lines are drawn on the basis of wealth . . ."); Harper v. Virginia Bd. of Elections, 383 U.S. 663, 668 (1966) ("Lines drawn on the basis of wealth or property . . . are traditionally disfavored"). This Court repeatedly has invalidated statutes, on their face or as applied, that discriminated against the poor. See, e.g., Little v. Streater, 452 U.S. 1 (1981); Bullock v. Carter, supra; Harper v. Virginia Bd. of Elections, supra; Griffin v. Illinois, supra. The Court has proved most likely to take such action when the laws in question interfered with the access of the poor to the political and judicial processes. One source of these decisions, in my view, is a deep distrust of policies that specially burden the access of disadvantaged persons to the governmental institutions and processes that offer members of our society an opportunity to improve their status and better their lives. The intent of the Fourteenth Amendment was to abolish caste legislation. See Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 213 (1982). When state action has the predictable tendency to entrap the poor and create a permanent underclass, that intent is frustrated. See id. at 234 (BLACKMUN, J., concurring). Thus, to the extent that a law places discriminatory barriers between indigents and the basic tools and opportunities that might enable them to rise, exacting scrutiny should be applied.

The statute at issue here burdens a poor person’s interest in an education. The extraordinary nature of this interest cannot be denied. This Court’s most famous statement on the subject is contained in Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. at 493:

[E]ducation is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.

Since Brown, we frequently have called attention to the vital role of education in our society. We have noted that "education is necessary to prepare citizens to participate effectively and intelligently in our open political system. . . ." Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 221 (1972); see San Antonio Independent School Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. at 112-115 (MARSHALL, J., dissenting). We also have recognized that education prepares individuals to become self-reliant participants in our economy. See Plyler v. Doe, supra, at 221-222; Wisconsin v. Yoder, supra, at 221. A statute that erects special obstacles to education in the path of the poor naturally tends to consign such persons to their current disadvantaged status. By denying equal opportunity to exactly those who need it most, the law not only militates against the ability of each poor child to advance herself or himself, but also increases the likelihood of the creation of a discrete and permanent underclass. Such a statute is difficult to reconcile with the framework of equality embodied in the Equal Protection Clause.

This Court’s decision in Plyler v. Doe, supra, supports these propositions. The Court in Plyler upheld the right of the children of illegal aliens to receive the free public education that the State of Texas made available to other residents. The Court in that case engaged in some discussion of alienage, a classification not relevant here. The decision, however, did not rest upon this basis. Rather, the Court made clear that the infirmity of the Texas law stemmed from its differential treatment of a discrete and disadvantaged group of children with respect to the provision of education. The Court stated that education is not "merely some governmental `benefit’ indistinguishable from other forms of social welfare legislation." Id. at 221. The Court further commented that the state law

poses an affront to one of the goals of the Equal Protection Clause: the abolition of governmental barriers presenting unreasonable obstacles to advancement on the basis of individual merit.

Id. at 221-222. Finally, the Court called attention to the tendency of the Texas law to create a distinct underclass of impoverished illiterates who would be unable to participate in and contribute to society. See id. at 222-224. The Plyler Court’s reasoning is fully applicable here. As in Plyler, the State in this case has acted to burden the educational opportunities of a disadvantaged group of children, who need an education to become full participants in society.

The State’s rationale for this policy is based entirely on fiscal considerations. The State has allowed Dickinson and certain other school districts to charge a nonwaivable flat fee for bus service so that these districts may recoup part of the costs of the service. The money that Dickinson collects from applying the busing fee to indigent families, however, represents a minuscule proportion of the costs of the bus service. As the Court notes, ante at 454, all of the fees collected by Dickinson amount to only 11% of the cost of providing the bus service, and the fees collected from poor families represent a small fraction of the total fees. Exempting indigent families from the busing fee therefore would not require Dickinson to make any significant adjustments in either the operation or the funding of the bus service. Indeed, as the Court states, most school districts in the State provide full bus service without charging any fees at all. See ante at 465. The state interest involved in this case is therefore insubstantial; it does not begin to justify the discrimination challenged here.

The Court’s decision to the contrary "demonstrates once again a `callous indifference to the realities of life for the poor.’" Selective Service System v. Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, 468 U.S. at 876 (MARSHALL, J., dissenting), quoting Flagg Bros., Inc. v. Brooks, 436 U.S. 149, 166 (1978) (MARSHALL, J., dissenting). These realities may not always be obvious from the Court’s vantage point, but the Court fails in its constitutional duties when it refuses, as it does today, to make even the effort to see. For the poor, education is often the only route by which to become full participants in our society. In allowing a State to burden the access of poor persons to an education, the Court denies equal opportunity and discourages hope. I do not believe the Equal Protection Clause countenances such a result. I therefore dissent.

1. The Court therefore does not address the question whether a State constitutionally could deny a child access to a minimally adequate education. In prior cases, this Court explicitly has left open the question whether such a deprivation of access would violate a fundamental constitutional right. See Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 284 (1986); San Antonio Independent School Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 25, n. 60, 36-37 (1973). That question remains open today.

2. There is no dispute that the Kadrmas family was indigent at the time relevant to this litigation. The family’s annual income at the time of trial was at or near the poverty line. In addition, the family was heavily in debt, owing a total of $13,000.


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Chicago: Marshall, "Marshall, J., Dissenting," Kadrmas v. Dickinson Pub. Schs., 487 U.S. 450 (1988) in 487 U.S. 450 487 U.S. 467–487 U.S. 472. Original Sources, accessed March 23, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8P9KLDVALUK4EE3.

MLA: Marshall. "Marshall, J., Dissenting." Kadrmas v. Dickinson Pub. Schs., 487 U.S. 450 (1988), in 487 U.S. 450, pp. 487 U.S. 467–487 U.S. 472. Original Sources. 23 Mar. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8P9KLDVALUK4EE3.

Harvard: Marshall, 'Marshall, J., Dissenting' in Kadrmas v. Dickinson Pub. Schs., 487 U.S. 450 (1988). cited in 1988, 487 U.S. 450, pp.487 U.S. 467–487 U.S. 472. Original Sources, retrieved 23 March 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8P9KLDVALUK4EE3.