United States v. Virginia

PETITIONER: United States
LOCATION: Virginia Military Institute

DOCKET NO.: 94-1941
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 518 US 515 (1996)
ARGUED: Jan 17, 1996
DECIDED: Jun 26, 1996

Paul Bender - Argued the cause for the United States
Theodore B. Olson - Argued the cause on behalf of Virginia et al

Facts of the case

The Virginia Military Institute (VMI) boasted a long and proud tradition as Virginia's only exclusively male public undergraduate higher learning institution. The United States brought suit against Virginia and VMI alleging that the school's male-only admissions policy was unconstitutional insofar as it violated the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause. On appeal from a District Court ruling favoring VMI, the Fourth Circuit reversed. It found VMI's admissions policy to be unconstitutional. Virginia, in response to the Fourth Circuit's reversal, proposed to create the Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership (VWIL) as a parallel program for women. On appeal from the District Court's affirmation of the plan, the Fourth Circuit ruled that despite the difference in prestige between the VMI and VWIL, the two programs would offer "substantively comparable" educational benefits. The United States appealed to the Supreme Court.


Does Virginia's creation of a women's-only academy, as a comparable program to a male-only academy, satisfy the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause?

Media for United States v. Virginia

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 17, 1996 in United States v. Virginia

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 26, 1996 in United States v. Virginia

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in two cases No. 94-1941 United States against Virginia and No. 94-2107 Virginia against United States will be announced by Justice Ginsburg.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

This case concerns an incomparable military college, the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), the sole single sex school among Virginia’s Public Institutions of Higher Learning.

Since its founding in 1839, VMI has produced civilian and military leaders for the commonwealth and the nation.

The School’s unique program and unparalleled record as the leadership training ground has led someone in to seek admission.

The United States on behalf of women capable of all the activities required of VMI cadet instituted this lawsuit in 1990 maintaining that under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution Virginia may not reserve exclusively to men the educational opportunities that VMI affords.

The case has had a long history in court.

In the first round, the District Court ruled against the United States reasoning that the all male VMI served the State Policy according a diverse array of educational program.

The Fourth Circuit vacated that judgment concluding that a diversity policy serving to favor one gender did not constitute equal protection.

In the second round, the lower Courts considered a found satisfactorily to remedy Virginia proposed, a program for women called the Virginia Women’s Institute for leadership or the VWIL at a private women’s college Mary Baldwin College.

A VWIL degree, at the Fourth Circuit said, would not carry the historical benefits and prestige of a VMI degree and the two programs deferred markedly in methodology, VMI is vigorously adversative,VWIL’s would be cooperative.

But overall, the Lower courts concluded these schools were sufficiently comparable to meet the demand of equal protection.

We reverse that determination.

Our reasoning centers on the essence of the complaint of the United States and on facts that are undisputed.

Some women at least can meet the physical standards, VMI imposes on men, are capable of all the activities required of VMI cadets prefer VMI's methodology over VWIL could be educated using VMI’s methodology and would want to attend VMI if they had the chance.

With recruitment the District Court recognize VMI could achieve at least 10% female enrolment a number the District Court said sufficient to provide female cadets with a positive educational experience.

If most women would not choose VMI’s adversative method, many men too would not want to be educated in VMI’s environment.

The question before us however is not whether women or men should be forced to attend VMI rather the question is whether Virginia can constitutionally deny to women who have the will and capacity the training and attendant opportunity VMI uniquely affords; training and opportunity of the VWIL program does not supply.

To answer that question, we must have a measuring rod what lawyers call a standard of review.

In a nutshell this is the standard our precedent establishes.

Defenders of sex-based government action must demonstrate an exceedingly persuasive justification for that action to make that demonstration.

The defender of a gender line must show at least that the talents classification served important governmental objective and that any discriminatory mean employed is substantively related to the achievement of those objectives.

The heightened review standard applicable to sex-based classification does not make a proscribed classification but it does mark as presumptively invalid incompatible with equal protection a law or official policy that denies to women simply because they are women equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in, and contribute to society based upon what they can do.

Under this exacting standard reliance on overbroad generalization typically male or typically female tendency estimates about the way most women or most men are will not suffice to deny opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.

As this Court said in Mississippi University for women against Hogan some 14 years ago state actors may not close entrance gates based on fixed notions concerning their roles and abilities of males and females.

A remedial decree must two of the constitutional violations in this case, the violation is the categorical exclusion of women from an extraordinary educational leadership development opportunity afforded men.

To cure that violation and to afford genuinely equal protection, women seeking and set forth a VMI quality education cannot be offered anything less.

We therefore reversed the Fourth Circuit’s judgment and the remand the case for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

The Chief Justice has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment; Justice Scalia had filed a dissenting opinion.

Justice Thomas took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.