Washington v. Davis

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Washington v. Davis
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued March 1, 1976
Decided June 7, 1976
Full case name Washington, Mayor of Washington, D.C., et al. v. Davis, et al.
Citations 426 U.S. 229 (more)
96 S. Ct. 2040; 48 L. Ed. 2d 597; 1976 U.S. LEXIS 154; 12 Fair Empl. Prac. Cas. (BNA) 1415; 11 Empl. Prac. Dec. (CCH) P10,958
Prior history Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
Subsequent history 168 U.S. App. D.C. 42, 512 F.2d 956, reversed.
To be unconstitutional, racial discrimination by the government must contain two elements: a discriminatory purpose and a discriminatory impact.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority White, joined by Burger, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist, Stevens; Stewart (parts I and II only)
Concurrence Stevens
Dissent Brennan, joined by Marshall
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. V; Civil Rights Act of 1964

Washington v. Davis, 426 US 229 (1976) was a United States Supreme Court case that established that laws that have a racially-discriminatory effect but were not adopted to advance a racially-discriminatory purpose are valid, under the US Constitution.


Two black applicants for positions in the Washington, DC police department were turned down. Suing, they claimed that the Department used racially discriminatory hiring procedures, including its use of a test of verbal skills (Test 21), which was failed disproportionately by blacks. The plaintiffs sued the department, alleging that the test constituted impermissible employment discrimination under both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the US Constitution. Since the respondents were filing the action in Washington, DC, a federal territory, not a state, the constitutional provision the plaintiffs sued under was the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment instead of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Equal Protection Clause directly applies only to the states, but the Supreme Court ruled in Bolling v. Sharpe that the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which applies to the federal government, contains an equal protection component.


The Supreme Court held that under the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause, "a law or other official act, without regard to whether it reflects a racially discriminatory purpose, [is not] unconstitutional solely because it has a racially disproportionate impact." A plaintiff must prove discriminatory motive on the part of the state actor to receive redress under the Constitution, not just discriminatory impact. It held a "disproportionate impact is not irrelevant, but it is not the sole touchstone of an invidious racial discrimination forbidden by the Constitution." The Court also examined whether Test 21 had a discriminatory effect. After applying the disparate impact analysis, it held that Test 21 did not have a discriminatory effect on blacks. The Court held that the Court of Appeals had erroneously assumed that the stricter, effects-based "disparate impact" test, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, existed under the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause as well. The Court pointed out that Washington, DC, police department had gone to significant lengths to recruit black officers. In the years since the case was brought before the trial court, the ratio of blacks on the police force to blacks in the community had nearly evened out.

White J said the following.[1]

Brennan J and Marshall J dissented. They would have held that the constitutional questions would not be reached and that the question should have first been decided on statutory grounds in the employees' favor.


The purpose-based standard made it much more difficult for plaintiffs to prevail in discrimination suits arising under the Constitution. Unlike the Constitution, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was interpreted in Griggs v Duke Power Co., 401 US 424 (1971) to prohibit employment practices that have a racially-disparate impact irrespective of whether they were adopted with a discriminatory purpose.

In the years following Washington, the Court held that laws must be motivated by purposeful discrimination, not just have a discriminatory effect, to be unconstitutional. In Personnel Administrator of Massachusetts v Feeney 442 US 256 (1979) held legislation obnoxious to the Equal Protection Clause is passed "because of, not merely in spite of, its adverse effects upon an identifiable group.

In Mobile v. Bolden, the Court cited Washington in holding that the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited racially discriminatory voting laws only if they were adopted with a racially discriminatory purpose. That principle was affirmed again in McClesky v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987), which held that criminal statutes are invalid under the Equal Protection Clause only if they were adopted with a discriminatory purpose.

In 1991, Congress amended Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and codified the "disparate impact" test, established in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. and its progeny, which allows employees to sue their employers (including governmental entities) for racial discrimination irrespective of discriminatory purpose. Justice Scalia argued his minority view in Ricci v. DeStefano that the disparate impact provisions of Title VII should be unconstitutional, under the Equal Protection Clause.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 426 U.S. 229 at 238-246.

External links[edit]

  • ^ Text of Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229 (1976) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia