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Rational Basis Test

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A judicial standard of review that examines whether a legislature had a reasonable and not an arbitrary basis for enacting a particular statute.

Courts employ various standards of review to assess whether legislative acts violate constitutionally protected interests. The U.S. Supreme Court has articulated the rational basis test for those cases where a plaintiff alleges that the legislature has made an arbitrary or irrational decision. When a court employs the rational basis test, it usually upholds the constitutionality of the law, because the test gives great deference to the legislative branch.

A law that touches on a constitutionally protected interest must be rationally related to furthering a legitimate government interest. In applying the rational basis test, courts begin with a strong presumption that the law or policy under review is valid. The burden of proof is on the party making the challenge to show that the law or policy is unconstitutional. To meet this burden, the party must demonstrate that the law or policy does not have a rational basis. This is difficult to prove, because a court can usually find some reasonable ground for sustaining the constitutionality of the challenged law or policy.

For example, a state law that prohibits performing dentistry without a license deprives laypersons of their constitutionally protected rights to make contracts freely and discriminates against those unable or unwilling to obtain a license. But a court would undoubtedly uphold the constitutionality of the law because the license requirement is a rational means of advancing the state's legitimate interests in public health and safety.

For a hundred years, the rational basis test has been part of the U.S. Supreme Court's review of cases that alleged denial of equal protection of the laws. State and federal laws are filled with discriminations, or classifications, of various kinds. A law that would apply universally and treat all persons equally is virtually impossible to craft. Because all laws classify by imposing special burdens or by conferring special benefits on some people and not others, there are always persons who are displeased. For example, when a state limits the privilege to purchase and consume intoxicating liquor to persons twenty-one and older, it is engaging in age discrimination. But a court would find this was not a denial of equal protection because the legislature has a legitimate interest in restricting the drinking age and the law advances that interest in a rational way.

Under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, persons are entitled to equal protection of the laws. The Supreme Court, in Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. Ellis, 165 U.S. 150, 17 S. Ct. 255, 41 L. Ed. 666 (1897), first articulated the rational basis test under equal protection. The Court stated that "it is not within the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment to withhold from States the power of classification." However, the Court continued, "it must appear" that a classification is "based upon some reasonable ground—some difference which bears a just and proper relation to the attempted classification—and is not a mere arbitrary selection."

A person challenging a law on equal protection grounds has a very difficult task. The Supreme Court has used the rational basis standard to practice judicial restraint and to limit its ability to overturn legislation. In areas of social and economic policy, where constitutionally suspect classifications (race, religion, alienage, or national origin) are not at issue, nor are any fundamental constitutional rights at stake, a law must be upheld if there is any "reasonably conceivable state of facts that could provide a rational basis for the classification" (United States Railroad Retirement Bd. v. Fritz, 449 U.S. 166, 101 S. Ct. 453, 66 L. Ed. 2d 368 [1980]).

In addition, the Court does not require a legislature to articulate its reasons for enacting a statute, holding that "[i]t is entirely irrelevant for constitutional purposes whether the conceived reason for the challenged distinction actually motivated the legislature" (FCC v. Beach Communications, Inc., 508 U.S. 307, 113 S. Ct. 2096, 124 L. Ed. 2d 211 [1993]). Thus, the Court stated, a "legislative choice is not subject to courtroom fact-finding and may be based on rational speculation unsupported by evidence or empirical data" (FCC v. Beach Communications). This means that a court is permitted to find a rational basis for a law, even if it is one that was not articulated by the legislature.

Because of these factors, application of the rational basis test usually results in the upholding of the law. Nevertheless, it remains the primary test for determining the constitutionality of classifications that encroach on economic interests.

Further Readings

Johnson, Virginia H. 2001. "Application of the Rational Basis Test to Treaty-Implementing Legislation: The Need for a More Stringent Standard of Review." Cardozo Law Review 23 (November).

Irr, Melissa. 2001. "United States v. Morrison: An Analysis of the Diminished Effect of Congressional Findings in Commerce Clause Jurisprudence and a Criticism of the Abandonment of the Rational Basis Test." University of Pittsburgh Law Review 62 (summer).

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