Rational basis review
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" government interest, whether real or hypothetical. Rational basis review is the 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 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.
Rational basis review tests whether the government's actions are "rationally related" to a "legitimate" government interest. The Supreme Court has never set forth standards for determining what constitutes a legitimate government interest. Under rational basis review, it is "entirely irrelevant" what end the government is actually seeking and statutes can be based on "rational speculation unsupported by evidence or empirical data." Rather, if the court can merely hypothesize a "legitimate" interest served by the challenged action, it will withstand rational basis review. Judges following the Supreme Court's instructions understand themselves to be "obligated to seek out other conceivable reasons for validating" challenged laws if the government is unable to justify its own policies.
The concept of rational basis review can be traced to an influential 1893 article, "The Origin and Scope of American Constitutional Law," by Harvard law professor James Bradley Thayer. Thayer argued that statutes should be invalidated only if their unconstitutionality is “so clear that it is not open to rational question.”  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a student of Thayer's, articulated a version of what would become rational basis review in his canonical dissent in Lochner v. New York, arguing that "the word 'liberty,' in the 14th Amendment, is perverted when it is held to prevent the natural outcome of a dominant opinion, unless it can be said that a rational and fair man necessarily would admit that the statute proposed would infringe fundamental principles as they have been understood by the traditions of our people and our law." In Nebbia v. New York, the Court formally applied rational basis review, stating that “a State is free to adopt whatever economic policy may reasonably be deemed to promote public welfare, and to enforce that policy by legislation adapted to its purpose.” In United States v. Carolene Products Co. the Court in Footnote Four left open the possibility that laws that seem to be within "a specific prohibition of the Constitution," which restrict the political process, or which burden "discrete and insular minorities" might receive more exacting review. Today, such laws receive strict scrutiny, whereas laws implicating unenumerated rights that the Supreme Court has not recognized as fundamental receive rational basis review.
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 the rights 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. 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".
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 conceivable 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.'"
- Buck v. Bell 274 U.S. 200 (1927) Cf., Skinner v. State of Oklahoma, ex. rel. Williamson, 316 U.S. 535 (1942)
- City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc.
- Due process
- Equal Protection Clause
- John Marshall
- Marbury v. Madison
- Plyler v. Doe
- Romer v. Evans
- United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144 (1938).
- See Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, 483 U.S. 825, 834 (1987)
- FCC v. Beach Communications, Inc. 508 U.S. 307, 315 (1993)
- Sullivan, Kathleen M. & Gunther Gerald. Constitutional Law. Foundation Press, New York, NY. 16th Ed. Chapter 9 (2007).
- Starlight Sugar, Inc. v. Soto, 253 F.3d 137, 146 (1st Cir.2001)
- Posner, Richard A. (2012). "The Rise and Fall of Judicial Self-Restraint". California Law Review 100 (3): 519, 522. Retrieved February 24, 2015.
- 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).
- Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996) at 635
- New York State Bd. of Elections v. Lopez Torres, 552 U.S. ___, ___ (2008) (Stevens, J., concurring).