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United States v. Virginia

In United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515, 116 S. Ct. 2264, 135 L. Ed. 2d 735 (1996), the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision on sex-based discrimination when it ruled that Virginia Military Institute (VMI), a publicly funded military college, must give up its all-male enrollment policy and admit women. The decision, which also affected The Citadel, South Carolina's state-run, all-male, military school, was a decisive blow to state-sponsored discrimination. In so ruling, the Court rejected a proposal by Virginia that it establish a separate military program for women at a private college.

The case began in 1990 when a female high school student complained to the U.S. JUSTICE DEPARTMENT about the VMI male-only admission policy. Her application had been rejected without regard to her qualifications. The JUSTICE DEPARTMENT sued the Commonwealth of Virginia and VMI, arguing that discrimination on the basis of sex violated the EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT. The district court ruled in favor of VMI, grounding the decision on the need to preserve the "VMI experience," a physically and emotionally demanding military regimen that has remained unchanged since the early nineteenth century (United States v. Virginia, 766 F. Supp. 1407 [W.D.Va. 1991]). The court concluded that this "adversative" method of education could not work in a coeducational environment. The critical component of this method was the subjection of first-year students to the "rat line." First-year students are called "rats" because, as one expert testified, the rat is "probably the lowest animal on earth." During the first seven months of college, the rats are treated miserably.

Features of the rat line include "indoctrination, egalitarian treatment, rituals, minute regulation of individual behaviors, frequent punishment, and the use of privileges to support desired behaviors." Rats have no privacy. The tradition of constant supervision of cadets has led to stark, unaccommodating barracks without curtains, door locks, or other physical barriers that promote privacy.

The judge concluded that coeducation would prevent both men and women from undergoing the "VMI experience." The presence of women would "distract male students from their studies," while tending to "impair the esprit de corps and egalitarian atmosphere." The barracks would have to be modified to provide privacy, and the physical education requirements would have to be altered for women. If women were admitted, VMI would eventually drop the adversative model. Therefore, the judge ruled that VMI was "fully justified" in prohibiting women. The same-sex admission policy promoted diversity of educational opportunities because out of 15 state-funded COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES in Virginia, VMI alone had this policy. This diversity was a legitimate state objective that rebutted the claim of unequal protection of the law.

The Justice Department appealed the decision. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the decision and sent the case back to the district court (United States v. Virginia, 976 F.2d 890 [4th Cir. 1992]). In his majority opinion, Judge Paul Niemeyer accepted the district court's factual determinations that the VMI adversative model justified a single-sex admission policy and that critical elements of the model would be substantially changed if women were admitted. The appeals court also pointed out that all the parties acknowledged "the positive and unique aspects of the program."

The appeals court concluded, however, that the Commonwealth of Virginia had failed to "articulate an important objective which supports the provision of this unique educational opportunity to men only." Judge Niemeyer stated that the "decisive question" was why the state offered this educational opportunity only to men. The state was required to articulate an objective because of the type of constitutional review in this case. In lawsuits challenging SEX DISCRIMINATION by the government, the government must show that the sex-based classification is "substantially related to an important government objective."

The "unique benefit" offered by VMI did not answer the question of whether women could be denied admission under a policy of diversity. Judge Niemeyer found nothing in the record that explained why the Commonwealth of Virginia offered this unique benefit only to men. Though VMI had "adequately defended" its system, it had failed to identify or establish the existence of a government objective that justified its single-sex admission policy on the basis of educational diversity.

The appeals court remanded the case to the district court. Virginia then advanced a proposal to create a parallel program for women, called the Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership (VWIL). VWIL would be located at Mary Baldwin College, a private liberal arts college for women. VMI would remain all male. The district court accepted the plan (United States v. Virginia, 852 F. Supp. 471 [W.D. Va. 1994]). The Justice Department appealed again to the Fourth Circuit, but this time the appeals court upheld the remedial plan. The court concluded that Virginia's plan for single-gender options was a legitimate objective. It also found that VMI and VWIL would provide "substantively comparable" benefits (United States v. Virginia, 44 F.3d 1229 [4th Cir. 1995]).

The U.S. Supreme Court found no merit in the lower courts' justifications for maintaining the VMI male-only admission policy. Justice RUTH BADER GINSBURG, in her majority opinion, essentially agreed with the first decision of the court of appeals, which found no basis for the male-only policy. In her view, "[n]either the goal of producing citizen-soldiers nor VMI's implementing methodology is inherently unsuitable to women."

Ginsburg rejected Virginia's contention that single-sex education yields educational benefits important enough to justify the exclusion of women from VMI. The generalizations about the differences between men and women that were offered to justify the exclusion of women were suspect. According to Ginsburg, the generalizations were too broad and stereotypical, and the predictions that VMI stature would suffer if women were admitted were no more than self-fulfilling prophecies. The categorical exclusion of women from VMI denied EQUAL PROTECTION to women.

The categorical exclusion was unnecessary because the VMI adversative method of training could be modified without destroying the program. In Ginsburg's view, "neither the goal of producing citizen-soldiers, VMI's raison d'être, nor VMI's implementing methodology is inherently unsuitable to women."

The Court was also unimpressed with the creation of the VWIL as a remedy for the constitutional violation of equal protection. Justice Ginsburg noted numerous deficiencies, pointing out that VWIL afforded women no opportunity to "experience the rigorous military training for which VMI is famed." VWIL did not propose to use the adversative method, nor would the student body, faculty, course offerings, or facilities match VMI's. Ginsburg called the VWIL a "pale shadow" of VMI that would lack substantial equality with the all male college.

Finally, the Court rejected the appeals court's "substantive comparability" test as PLAIN ERROR. The appellate court's "deferential analysis" did not accord with the "heightened scrutiny" test required when allegations of sexbased discrimination are made. Calling the VWIL remedy "substantially different and significantly unequal," Ginsburg noted that the court of appeals should have inquired as to whether the proposed remedy placed women who were denied the VMI advantage in the position they would have occupied in the absence of discrimination. The answer to this inquiry was clearly negative, thus invalidating the VWIL remedy. Ginsburg stated, "Women seeking and fit for a VMI-quality education cannot be offered anything less under the state's obligation to afford them genuinely equal protection."


Brodie, Laura Fairchild. 2000. Breaking Out: VMI and the Coming of Women. New York: Pantheon.


Sex Discrimination; Women's Rights.

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