Rational basis review

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Rational basis review, in U.S. constitutional law, refers to the lowest of three levels of scrutiny applied by courts when considering constitutional questions, including due process or equal protection questions under the Fifth Amendment or Fourteenth Amendment. "Rational basis review" simply means that the enactment in question is "rationally related" to a "legitimate" governmental reason offered as its justification. Rational basis review is the lowest, default level of scrutiny that a court applies when engaging in judicial review in the United States. The higher levels of scrutiny are intermediate scrutiny and strict scrutiny. Rational basis review does not usually apply in situations where a suspect or quasi-suspect classification is involved, or a fundamental right is implicated.

In United States Supreme Court jurisprudence, the nature of the interest at issue determines the level of scrutiny applied by appellate courts. When courts engage in "rational basis review", only the most egregious enactments – those not rationally related to a legitimate government interest – are overturned.


The rational basis review tests whether a governmental action is a reasonable means to an end that may be legitimately pursued by the government. This test requires that the governmental action be "rationally related" to a "legitimate" government interest.[1][2] Under this standard of review, the "legitimate interest" does not have to be the government’s actual interest. Rather, if the court can merely hypothesize a "legitimate" interest served by the challenged action, it will withstand the rational basis review.[3]


Rational basis review originated with the means-ends test used by the U.S. Supreme Court in McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819. However, the actual introduction of modern rational basis review came in 1938 in United States v. Carolene Products Co., in which rational basis review became separate and distinct from strict scrutiny.


In modern constitutional law, the rational basis test is applied to constitutional challenges of both federal law and state law (via the Fourteenth Amendment). This test also applies to both legislative and executive action whether those actions be of a substantive or procedural nature.

A law, when challenged, must have a rational basis without which it might violate right of a person under the U.S. Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Any rationally related justification will suffice, however the legislative reasoning must not be arbitrary.[4] While a "law enacted for broad and ambitious purposes often can be explained by reference to legitimate public policies which justify the incidental disadvantages they impose on certain persons", it must nevertheless, at least, "bear a rational relationship to a legitimate governmental purpose".[5]

To understand the concept of rational basis review, it is easier to understand what it is not. Rational basis review is not intelligent basis review; the legislature is merely required to be rational, not smart. A court applying rational basis review will virtually always uphold a challenged law unless every proffered justification for it is a grossly illogical non sequitur (or even worse, a word salad). In 2008, Justice John Paul Stevens reaffirmed the lenient nature of rational basis review in a concurring opinion: "[A]s I recall my esteemed former colleague, Thurgood Marshall, remarking on numerous occasions: 'The Constitution does not prohibit legislatures from enacting stupid laws.'"[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144 (1938).
  2. ^ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/emma-rubysachs/equal-potection-in-florid_b_147325.html
  3. ^ Sullivan, Kathleen M. & Gunther Gerald. Constitutional Law. Foundation Press, New York, NY. 16th Ed. Chapter 9 (2007).
  4. ^ Killian, Johnny H., George A. Costello, & Kenneth R. Thomas, co-eds., The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation: Analysis of Cases Decided by the Supreme Court of the United States to June 28, 2002, by Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress (Senate Document No. 108-17, 108th Congress, 2d Session) (Washington [D.C.]: U.S. Gov't Printing Ofc. 2004) (short title: Constitution Annotated), pp. 1906–1910 (pp. 242–246 per Adobe Acrobat Reader) (Fourteenth Amendment, title page (p. [I] (p. 1 per Adobe Acrobat Reader)), and Authorization (authorization to publish by joint resolution) (giving short title) (p. III) (p. 1 per Adobe Acrobat Reader), all as accessed October 23, 2005).
  5. ^ Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996) at 635
  6. ^ New York State Bd. of Elections v. Lopez Torres, 552 U.S. ___, ___ (2008) (Stevens, J., concurring).