JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.
Appellants urge us to hold that the Equal Protection Clause forbids a State to allow some local school boards, but not others, to assess a fee for transporting pupils between their homes and the public schools. Applying well-established equal protection principles, we reject this claim and affirm the constitutionality of the challenged statute.
North Dakota is a sparsely populated State, with many people living on isolated farms and ranches. One result has
Since 1947, the legislature has authorized and encouraged thinly populated school districts to consolidate or "reorganize" themselves into larger districts so that education can be provided more efficiently. See Herman, supra, at 328; N. D. Cent. Code, ch. 15-27.3 (Supp. 1987). Reorganization proposals, which obviously must contemplate an increase in the distance that some children travel to school, are required by law to include provisions for transporting students back and forth from their homes. See § 15-27.3-10. The details of these provisions may vary from district to district, but once a reorganization plan is adopted the transportation provisions can be changed only with the approval of the voters. See §§ 15-27.3-10 and 15-27.3-19.
Appellee Dickinson Public Schools, which serves a relatively populous area, has chosen not to participate in such a reorganization. Until 1973, this school system provided free bus service to students in outlying areas, but the "pickup points" for this service were often at considerable distances from the students' homes. After a plebiscite of the bus users, Dickinson's School Board instituted door-to-door bus service and began charging a fee. During the period relevant to this case, about 13% of the students rode the bus;
In 1979, the State enacted the legislation at issue in this case. This statute expressly indicates that nonreorganized school districts, like Dickinson, may charge a fee for transporting students to school; such fees, however, may not exceed the estimated cost to the school district of providing the service. See N. D. Cent. Code § 15-34.2-06.1 (1981 and Supp. 1987). The current version of this provision, which for convenience will be referred to as the "1979 statute," states in full:
Appellants are a Dickinson schoolchild, Sarita Kadrmas, and her mother, Paula. The Kadrmas family, which also includes Mrs. Kadrmas' husband and two preschool children, lives about 16 miles from Sarita's school. Mr. Kadrmas
In September 1985, appellants, along with others who have since withdrawn from the case, filed an action in state court seeking to enjoin appellees — the Dickinson Public Schools and various school district officials — from collecting any fee for the bus service. The action was dismissed on the merits, and an appeal was taken to the Supreme Court of North Dakota. After rejecting a state-law challenge, which is not at issue here, the court considered appellants' claim that the busing fee violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court characterized the 1979 statute as "purely economic legislation," which "must be upheld unless it is patently arbitrary and fails to bear a rational relationship to any legitimate government purpose." 402 N. W. 2d, at 902. The court then concluded "that the charges authorized [by the statute] are rationally related to the legitimate governmental objective of allocating limited resources and that the statute does not discriminate on the basis of wealth so as to violate federal or state equal protection rights." Id., at 903. The court also rejected the contention
Before addressing the merits, we must consider appellees' suggestion that this appeal should be dismissed on procedural grounds. After the decision of the Supreme Court of North Dakota in this case, Mrs. Kadrmas signed two bus service contracts and made partial payment on each. Since the execution of the first contract on April 6, 1987, Sarita has been riding the bus to school, or as appellees put it, "has been continuously enjoying the benefits of such bus service." Motion to Dismiss 1. Relying on Fahey v. Mallonee, 332 U.S. 245 (1947), appellees contend that appellants are "estopped" from pursuing their constitutional claims because "[i]t is well established that one may not retain benefits of an act while attacking the constitutionality of the same act." Motion to Dismiss 1-3.
Fahey was a shareholders' derivative suit in which a savings and loan association created under an Act of Congress sought to challenge the constitutionality of that same Act. This Court refused to consider the challenge, saying: "It would be difficult to imagine a more appropriate situation in which to apply the doctrine that one who utilizes an Act to gain advantages of corporate existence is estopped from questioning the validity of its vital conditions." 332 U. S., at 256 (emphasis added). The case before us today is not analogous. Appellants obviously are not creatures of any statute, and we doubt that plaintiffs are generally forbidden to challenge a statute simply because they are deriving some benefit
Appellees also assert that execution of the bus service contracts rendered this case "moot." Brief for Appellees 32. Although appellees do not elaborate this contention or distinguish it from the estoppel argument just considered, they may be suggesting the absence of an Article III "case or controversy." If so, they are mistaken. Appellants claim that the 1979 statute is unconstitutional to the extent that it authorizes Dickinson to charge a fee for bus service, and they seek to prevent such fees from being collected. A decision in their favor might relieve them from paying the balance still owing under the two contracts that were executed in 1987, and would certainly relieve them from future assessments for bus service under the authority of the challenged statute. Because Sarita was only nine years old at the time of trial, and because there are two younger children in the family, the ongoing and concrete nature of the controversy between appellants and the Dickinson Public Schools is readily apparent.
Unless a statute provokes "strict judicial scrutiny" because it interferes with a "fundamental right" or discriminates against a "suspect class," it will ordinarily survive an equal
We have previously rejected the suggestion that statutes having different effects on the wealthy and the poor should on that account alone be subjected to strict equal protection scrutiny. See, e. g., Harris v. McRae, 448 U.S. 297, 322-323 (1980); Ortwein v. Schwab, 410 U.S. 656, 660 (1973). Nor have we accepted the proposition that education is a "fundamental right," like equality of the franchise, which should trigger strict scrutiny when government interferes with an individual's access to it. See Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 284 (1986); Plyler v. Doe, supra, at 223; San Antonio Independent School Dist. v. Rodriguez, supra, at 16, 33-36.
Appellants contend, finally, that whatever label is placed on the standard of review, this case is analogous to decisions in which we have held that government may not withhold certain especially important services from those who are unable to pay for them. Appellants cite Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12 (1956) (right to appellate review of a criminal conviction conditioned on the purchase of a trial transcript); Smith v. Bennett, 365 U.S. 708 (1961) (application for writ of habeas corpus accepted only when accompanied by a filing fee); Boddie v. Connecticut, 401 U.S. 371 (1971) (action for dissolution of marriage could be pursued only upon payment of court fees and costs for service of process); Lindsey v. Normet, 405 U.S. 56 (1972) (appeal from civil judgments in certain landlord-tenant disputes conditioned on the posting of a bond for twice the amount of rent expected to accrue during the appellate process); and Little v. Streater, 452 U.S. 1 (1981) (fee for blood test in quasi-criminal paternity action brought against the putative father of a child receiving public assistance). See Brief for Appellants 22-23.
Leaving aside other distinctions that might be found between these cases and the one before us today, each involved a rule that barred indigent litigants from using the judicial process in circumstances where they had no alternative to that process. Decisions invalidating such rules are inapposite here. In contrast to the "utter exclusiveness of court access and court remedy," United States v. Kras, 409 U.S. 434, 445 (1973), North Dakota does not maintain a legal or a practical monopoly on the means of transporting children to
Applying the appropriate test — under which a statute is upheld if it bears a rational relation to a legitimate government
Appellants contend that, even without the application of strict or heightened scrutiny, the 1979 statute violates equal protection because it permits user fees for bus service only in nonreorganized school districts. This distinction, they say, can be given no rational justification whatsoever. Brief for Appellants 19-22. The principles governing our review of this claim are well established. " `The Fourteenth Amendment does not prohibit legislation merely because it is special, or limited in its application to a particular geographical or political subdivision of the state.' Fort Smith Light Co. v. Paving Dist., 274 U.S. 387, 391 (1927). Rather, the Equal Protection Clause is offended only if the statute's classification `rests on grounds wholly irrelevant to the achievement of the State's objective.' McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420, 425 (1961); Kotch v. Board of River Port Pilot Comm'rs, 330 U.S. 552, 556 (1947)." Holt Civic Club v. Tuscaloosa, 439 U.S. 60, 71 (1978). Social and economic legislation like the statute at issue in this case, moreover, "carries with it a presumption of rationality that can only be overcome by a clear showing of arbitrariness and irrationality." Hodel v. Indiana, 452 U.S. 314, 331-332 (1981). "[W]e will not overturn
Applying these principles to the present case, we conclude that appellants have failed to carry the "heavy burden" of demonstrating that the challenged statute is both arbitrary and irrational. Hodel v. Indiana, supra, at 332. The court below offered the following justification for the distinction drawn between reorganized and nonreorganized districts:
Appellees offer a more elaborate, but not incompatible, explanation:
The State of North Dakota informs us that the 1979 legislation was proposed to the legislature by the Dickinson School District itself, which had for several years been charging transportation fees and which "became concerned when it appeared that the 1979 Legislature would enact a statute prohibiting charging the fee." Brief for State of North Dakota as Amicus Curiae 6-7 (citations to legislative history omitted). The State's account of the reason for confining the express authorization of fees to nonreorganized schools districts is the same as the account offered by appellees. Id., at 9.
The explanation offered by appellees and the State is adequate to rebut appellants' contention that the distinction drawn between reorganized and nonreorganized districts is arbitrary and irrational. The Supreme Court of North Dakota has said, and the State agrees, that all reorganized school districts are presently required to furnish or pay for transportation for students living as far away from school as Sarita Kadrmas does. See 402 N. W. 2d, at 903 (citing N. D. Cent. Code § 15-27.3-10 (Supp. 1987)); Tr. of Oral Arg. 32. This requirement, however, is not imposed directly by statute, but rather by the reorganization plans that are statutorily required in the reorganization process. With
Even if we assume, as appellants apparently do, that the State has forbidden reorganized school districts to charge user fees for bus service under any circumstances, it is evident that the legislature could conceivably have believed that such a policy would serve the legitimate purpose of fulfilling the reasonable expectations of those residing in districts with free busing arrangements imposed by reorganization plans. Because this purpose could have no application to nonreorganized districts, the legislature could just as rationally conclude that those districts should have the option of imposing user fees on those who take advantage of the service they are offered.
In sum, the statute challenged in this case discriminates against no suspect class and interferes with no fundamental right. Appellants have failed to carry the heavy burden of demonstrating that the statute is arbitrary and irrational. The Supreme Court of North Dakota correctly concluded that the statute does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and its judgment is
In San Antonio Independent School Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973), I wrote that the Court's holding was a "retreat from our historic commitment to equality of educational opportunity and [an] unsupportable acquiescence in a system which deprives children in their earliest years of the chance to reach their full potential." Id., at 71 (dissenting). Today, the Court continues the retreat from the promise of equal educational opportunity by holding that a school district's refusal to allow an indigent child who lives 16 miles from the nearest school to use a school-bus service without paying a fee does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Because I do not believe that this Court should sanction discrimination against the poor with respect to "perhaps the most important function of state and local governments," Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954), I dissent.
The Court's opinion suggests that this case does not concern state action that discriminates against the poor with regard to the provision of a basic education. The Court notes that the particular governmental action challenged in this case involves the provision of transportation, rather than the provision of educational services. See ante, at 459-460, 460-461. Moreover, the Court stresses that the denial of transportation to Sarita Kadrmas did not in fact prevent her from receiving an education; notwithstanding the denial of bus service, Sarita's family ensured that she attended school each day. See ante, at 458, 460-461.
I believe the Court's approach forgets that the Constitution is concerned with "sophisticated as well as simpleminded modes of discrimination." Lane v. Wilson, 307 U.S. 268, 275 (1939). This case involves state action that places a special burden on poor families in their pursuit of education. Children living far from school can receive a public education only if they have access to transportation; as the state court noted in this case, "a child must reach the schoolhouse door as a prerequisite to receiving the educational opportunity offered therein." 402 N.W.2d 897, 901 (N. D. 1987). Indeed, for children in Sarita's position, imposing a fee for transportation is no different in practical effect from imposing a fee directly for education. Moreover, the fee involved in this case discriminated against Sarita's family because it necessarily fell more heavily upon the poor than upon wealthier members of the community.
As I have stated on prior occasions, proper analysis of equal protection claims depends less on choosing the "formal label" under which the claim should be reviewed than upon identifying and carefully analyzing the real interests at stake.
The North Dakota statute discriminates on the basis of economic status. This Court has determined that classifications based on wealth are not automatically suspect. See, e. g., Maher v. Roe, 432 U.S. 464, 470-471 (1977). Such classifications, however, have a measure of special constitutional significance. See, e. g., McDonald v. Board of Election Comm'rs of Chicago, 394 U.S. 802, 807 (1969) ("[A] careful examination on our part is especially warranted where lines are drawn on the basis of wealth . . ."); Harper v. Virginia Bd. of Elections, 383 U.S. 663, 668 (1966) ("Lines drawn on the basis of wealth or property . . . are traditionally disfavored"). This Court repeatedly has invalidated statutes, on their face or as applied, that discriminated against the poor. See, e. g., Little v. Streater, 452 U.S. 1 (1981); Bullock v. Carter, supra; Harper v. Virginia Bd. of Elections, supra; Griffin v. Illinois, supra. The Court has proved most likely to take such action when the laws in question interfered with the access of the poor to the political and judicial processes. One source of these decisions, in my view, is a deep distrust of policies that specially burden the access of disadvantaged persons to the governmental institutions and processes that offer members of our society an
The statute at issue here burdens a poor person's interest in an education. The extraordinary nature of this interest cannot be denied. This Court's most famous statement on the subject is contained in Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U. S., at 493:
Since Brown, we frequently have called attention to the vital role of education in our society. We have noted that "education is necessary to prepare citizens to participate effectively and intelligently in our open political system . . . ." Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 221 (1972); see San Antonio Independent School Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U. S., at 112-115 (MARSHALL, J., dissenting). We also have recognized that
This Court's decision in Plyler v. Doe, supra, supports these propositions. The Court in Plyler upheld the right of the children of illegal aliens to receive the free public education that the State of Texas made available to other residents. The Court in that case engaged in some discussion of alienage, a classification not relevant here. The decision, however, did not rest upon this basis. Rather, the Court made clear that the infirmity of the Texas law stemmed from its differential treatment of a discrete and disadvantaged group of children with respect to the provision of education. The Court stated that education is not "merely some governmental `benefit' indistinguishable from other forms of social welfare legislation." Id., at 221. The Court further commented that the state law "poses an affront to one of the goals of the Equal Protection Clause: the abolition of governmental barriers presenting unreasonable obstacles to advancement on the basis of individual merit." Id., at 221-222. Finally, the Court called attention to the tendency of the Texas law to create a distinct underclass of impoverished illiterates who would be unable to participate in and contribute to society. See id., at 222-224. The Plyler Court's reasoning is fully applicable here. As in Plyler, the State in this case has acted to burden the educational opportunities of a
The State's rationale for this policy is based entirely on fiscal considerations. The State has allowed Dickinson and certain other school districts to charge a nonwaivable flat fee for bus service so that these districts may recoup part of the costs of the service. The money that Dickinson collects from applying the busing fee to indigent families, however, represents a minuscule proportion of the costs of the bus service. As the Court notes, ante, at 454, all of the fees collected by Dickinson amount to only 11% of the cost of providing the bus service, and the fees collected from poor families represent a small fraction of the total fees. Exempting indigent families from the busing fee therefore would not require Dickinson to make any significant adjustments in either the operation or the funding of the bus service. Indeed, as the Court states, most school districts in the State provide full bus service without charging any fees at all. See ante, at 465. The state interest involved in this case is therefore insubstantial; it does not begin to justify the discrimination challenged here.
The Court's decision to the contrary "demonstrates once again a `callous indifference to the realities of life for the poor.' " Selective Service System v. Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, 468 U. S., at 876 (MARSHALL, J., dissenting), quoting Flagg Bros., Inc. v. Brooks, 436 U.S. 149, 166 (1978) (MARSHALL, J., dissenting). These realities may not always be obvious from the Court's vantage point, but the Court fails in its constitutional duties when it refuses, as it does today, to make even the effort to see. For the poor, education is often the only route by which to become full participants in our society. In allowing a State to burden the access of poor persons to an education, the Court denies equal opportunity and discourages hope. I do not believe the Equal Protection Clause countenances such a result. I therefore dissent.
When the sovereign applies different rules to different segments of its jurisdiction, it must have a rational basis for doing so. "The term `rational,' of course, includes a requirement that an impartial lawmaker could logically believe that the classification would serve a legitimate public purpose that transcends the harm to the members of the disadvantaged class." Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc., 473 U.S. 432, 452 (1985) (STEVENS, J., concurring) (footnote omitted). In this case, JUSTICE MARSHALL accurately explicates the harm to certain members of the disadvantaged class. And since the Supreme Court of the State of North Dakota has unequivocally identified the actual purpose of the geographic discrimination, I would not second-guess that conclusion and presume that the harm JUSTICE MARSHALL describes has been imposed for other reasons.
The State Supreme Court explained:
This explanation of the state legislative purpose makes two propositions perfectly clear. First, free bus transportation is an important component of public education in a sparsely populated State; otherwise the alleviation of parental concerns regarding the cost of student transportation in a reorganized district could not have been expected to motivate a significant number of voters. Second, after the voters in a school district have had a fair opportunity to decide whether
Thus, the State Supreme Court's explanation of the purpose of this discrimination does not include the "elements of legitimacy and neutrality that must always characterize the performance of the sovereign's duty to govern impartially." Cleburne, supra, at 452 (footnote omitted). Accordingly, I respectfully dissent.