Why is the case important?
Arizona required State residents to be a United States citizen or a resident of the United States for at least fifteen years to be eligible for welfare benefits.
Facts of the case
The state of Arizona restricts the distribution of welfare benefits to individuals who are either United States citizens or aliens who have lived in the country for at least 15 years. In 1969, Carmen Richardson, a resident alien of Arizona who met all requirements for welfare eligibility except the residency requirement, filed a class action lawsuit against the Commissioner of the State’s Department of Public Welfare questioning the constitutionality of that requirement. The three-judge court in the District of Arizona found in favor of Richardson, but the Commissioner appealed. In the same year, a similar class action suit was filed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. In this case, resident aliens of Pennsylvania challenged state law which dictated that if a Pennsylvania resident did not qualify for federal aid then he or she could only receive welfare benefits from the state if he or she were a citizen or had applied for citizenship. This three-judge court also found in favor of the resident aliens. However, one judge disagreed, and the defendants, namely the Executive Director of the Philadelphia County Board of Assistance and the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Department of Public Welfare, appealed.
May Arizona distinguish between resident aliens and citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution?
No. Court of Appeals ruling affirmed.
Justice Harry Blackmun (J. Blackmun) also notes that a person for the purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment encompasses both resident aliens and citizens, thereby affording legal aliens equal protection of the laws.
J. Blackmun, writing for the Supreme Court of the Untied States (Supreme Court), declares that restrictions based on alienage are akin to classifications based on race or nationality, in that they are subject to strict scrutiny.
The Supreme Court concludes that the State’s desire to preserve limited welfare benefits for its own citizens is not a compelling government interest for purposes of strict scrutiny, and thus the statute is unconstitutional.
The Court found that classifications based on alien status were inherently suspect and subject to close judicial scrutiny. A state statute that denied welfare benefits to resident aliens, and one that denied them to aliens who had not resided in the United States for a specified number of years, violated the Equal Protection Clause . Appellants’ desires to preserve limited welfare benefits for its own citizens were inadequate to justify appellants making noncitizens ineligible for public assistance and restricting benefits to citizens and longtime resident aliens.
- Case Brief: 1971
- Appellant: John O. Graham, Commissioner, Department of Public Welfare, State of Arizona
- Appellee: Carmen Richardson et al.
- Decided by: Burger Court
Citation: 403 US 365 (1971)
Argued: Mar 22, 1971
Decided: Jun 14, 1971