Friday, November 18, 2011

Equal Protection Clause application to ruralities with persistant poverty

In the seminal case of San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973) 411 U.S. 1 ("San Antonio Schools"), the Supreme Court held that the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment did not apply to a funding scheme that disadvantaged poor school children by using property taxes to raise money for schools. The court held that there was no fundamental right to education and that the scheme did not consistently discriminate against all poor people. The Court reasoned, for example, that some poor people live in rich counties, and those people, thus, may actually be advantaged by the law.

This case, although a close call with a 5-4 decision, provides the strongest legal argument for why the Equal Protection Clause provides little hope as an equalization tool in rural areas of persistent poverty. Persistent poverty rural areas, which are concentrated in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and in Indian Country, are marked by severe intergenerational poverty. Recent scholarship, such as the work of Lisa Pruitt, has examined the efficacy of the Equal Protection Clause in addressing issues endemic to these areas.

In a Supreme Court case entitled City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center (1985) 473 U.S. 432, the Court developed a new type of analysis to apply to cases addressing wealth disparity, as well as mental disability, alienage, and age. This analysis is aptly termed "rational basis with teeth." This analysis allows for an application of slightly heightened scrutiny to such cases.

Several factors are crucial to Equal Protection Clause analysis. The three most important inquires regard the characteristics of the group affected, the nature of the deprivation, and the permanence of the harm. The amount of scrutiny applied in Equal Protection cases varies in severity with the strength of these factors.

In terms of analyzing the nature of the group that is being affected, the courts looks to the Cleburne factors, which were developed from the famous footnote in the Carolene Products case. These factors include whether the group has faced a history of purposeful discrimination, shares a trait that is believed to be immutable, has been the target of negative stereotypes, has limited political power, and whether there is the lack of a relation between the shared trait and the ability to contribute to society.

The population in persistent poverty ruralites embodies most of these characteristics. Although not all people living in rural areas have faced purposeful discrimination, many constituents living in persistent poverty areas have faced such discrimination. The African Americans in the Mississippi Delta and the Native American in Indian country have faced systemic and invidious discrimination for hundreds of years. Additionally, all rural people generally are the targets of negative stereotypes. These stereotypes have grown in the latter half of the twentieth century. Rural people are often stereotyped as "hicks" who are culturally backward, are uneducated, ignorant etc.

While persistent poverty populations do not share immutable characteristics, they do have limited political power. Additionally, there is no relationship between their status as rural poor and there inherent ability to contribute to society.

The courts will apply more scrutiny when the right that is being deprived is a constitutional fundamental right. Populations in persistent poverty areas face many types of deprivations. Professor Pruitt has pointed to both the deprivation of education and the deprivation of legal counsel, as major problems facing persistent poverty populations.

The Supreme Court held that education is not a fundamental right in San Antonio Schools. Yet, one may argue that the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) 347 U.S. 483, decision indicates a fundamental right to education, at least at the primary and high school levels. The societal and political importance of primary and high school education is evident in the role it serves in a democracy. This level of public education serves the core governmental function of socializing citizens.

There is little doubt that the right to counsel is a fundamental right. The Sixth Amendment provides ample textual evidence for this assertion. Thus, the argument that persistent poverty populations are deprived of fundamental rights is a robust one.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, the harm resulting from these deprivations are indeed permanent in persistent poverty areas. One only needs to look at the statistics in persistent poverty areas regarding education, income, and health, to understand how far reaching and long-lasting the harm has been to these communities.

1 comment:

Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Here's an earlier post that touches on similar themes to this one: