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Minimum Rationality -Standard for Constitutional Review
This standard, also known as the “Rational Basis Standard of Review”, requires that a law have a rational connection to a permissible state end (a legitimate goal of the government). The classification must have a reasonable basis (not wholly arbitrary), and the courts will assume any statement of facts that can be used to justify the classification. This standard applies to laws that affect a non-fundamental right or one that is not expressly protected under the Constitution, such as social welfare and economic matters. As such, it is the default standard by which the court reviews a law to determine constitutionality. The standard is higher if the law affects a fundamental right, such as due process or equal protection rights.
The Supreme Court Develop the Rational Basis standard of review in the 1934 case, Nebbia v. New York. In that case, SCOTUS held that the government has the right to create general restrictions on private conduct for the purpose of regulating the economy, so long as the government action is not “arbitrary, discriminatory, or demonstrably irrelevant” to the action regulated. This case did not involve a fundamental right, so this lower standard became applicable to all similar cases.
- Example: The state passes a law concerning the speed limit on state highways. This law is not related to a fundamental right; rather, it is related to the privilege of driving. As such, this law would need to have a rational connection to a legitimate state goal. The goal of reducing traffic accidents or promoting motorist safety is sufficient to find the statute constitutional.
Discussion: The court is left to interpret what constitutes a legitimate government interest. There is no formal test established for this purpose. How do you feel about the level of autonomy left to the court in making this decision? (Note: When the government fails to provide a legitimate interest promoted by its law or action, the duty of the court is to “seek out other conceivable reasons for validating” the law or action.)
- The court will first determine whether there is a fundamental right at stake. Many, if not most laws, do not. There are many laws that serve a broad purpose and do not related directly to one’s fundamental rights. The court must inquire into whether a statute does further a legitimate end of the government. There is a great deal of autonomy in what is legitimate. Next, determine whether a law is rationally related to that end is also very subject.
Practice Question: The state government passes a law stating that individuals cannot watch any sort of screen or video projector while driving in a car. If a group of drivers and makers of car video players challenges the constitutionality of the law, what standard would a court apply in determining constitutionality?
- The court will apply the rational basis standard of review to determine if the law is rationally related to a legitimate state interest. We can assume that the state interest here is to prevent accidents, to reduce traffic. Driving while watching television itself is not a fundamental right. Of course, there is always a possibility for argument that it affects a fundamental right. However, in this case, we will assume that it does not affect a fundamental right. The conduct violates the road safety regulations. By making laws against this type of conduct, the state is neither violating an enumerated right, and there is no indication that the right to equal protection nor due process rights are implicated. As such, the state law is likely constitutionally permissible.
Eyer, Katie R., Constitutional Crossroads and the Canon of Rational Basis Review (May 29, 2014). UC Davis Law Review, Vol. 48, No. 2, 2014. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2427272