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Graham v. Richardson


Until 1971, the Supreme Court upheld the majority of statutes that limited the opportunities of resident aliens to engage in many activities. However, Graham v. Richardson was the first in a series of decisions that struck down many other restrictive state laws, restoring to resident aliens the rights guaranteed to them in the Fourteenth Amendment.

When Carmen Richardson became a lawfully admitted resident alien, she had every reason to expect the same treatment as any U.S. citizen under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment. In July of 1969, 64-year-old Carmen Richardson, an Arizona resident since 1956, became permanently and totally disabled. She met all the requirements for state-administered federal assistance benefits. However, Arizona law included a statute that said to receive welfare benefits, a person had to either be a citizen of the United States or to have lived in the country for 15 years. Of course, this statute applied to aliens only. The case of Graham v. Richardson soon became a measure of applying the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause to statutes that restricted the rights of resident aliens, based solely on their being aliens.

Richardson began a class action suit in the district of Arizona on behalf of herself and all other resident aliens of Arizona who could not receive welfare benefits even though they met all the eligibility requirements except for the residency statute. Richardson's suit sought declaratory relief from the state's Department of Public Welfare, the removal of the residency rules, and the benefits she believed were due to her.

Her case's claim was that Arizona's alien residency requirement violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the right to travel, as stated in the Constitution. Furthermore, Arizona's alien residency requirement conflicted with the Social Security Act, so the Supremacy Clause took precedence. The suit finally argued that Congress regulated aliens--not the individual states.

A three-judge district court upheld Richardson's motion for summary judgment on the basis that Arizona's law violated the Equal Protection Clause. That the court upheld the motion for a summary judgment basically meant that they believed that the Arizona law was of no relevance due to the Equal Protection Clause and that Richardson was due her benefits as any citizen would be. John O. Graham, Commissioner of the Arizona Department of Public Welfare appealed the decision. Arguments began in front of the Supreme Court on 22 March 1971. The case was decided on 14 June 1971.

The appellant, Graham, argued that when states favored United States citizens over aliens when distributing welfare benefits, it was in agreement with the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. His case argued that this differentiation involved no "invidious discrimination," because the state of Arizona was not discriminating due to race or nationality. In general, Arizona's point was that the state could justify its alien eligibility restrictions regarding public assistance because a state has "special public interest" favoring its own citizens rather than aliens when apportioning limited resources like welfare benefits.

However, the Supreme Court still decided that a state statute which denied welfare benefits to aliens who had not resided in the United States for an arbitrary number of years violated the Equal Protection Clause. There were further reasons why this particular state statute did not hold up under constitutional scrutiny, relating to the relationship between the federal government and the individual states.

Congress had established a detailed plan to regulate immigration and naturalization. One purpose was to exclude from admission to the United States, those who were "paupers, professional beggars, or vagrants," and who would be likely to depend on public assistance. In fact, part of this congressional plan ruled that if aliens became public charges within five years after entering the country "from causes not affirmatively shown to have arisen after entry" they would be deported. While Congress had provided specific wording for potential immigrants, they had made no direct ruling for those who became needy after entering the country. Congress declared that: "All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory--to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens."

On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the district court's ruling. Justice Blackmun's opinion--also held by all of the eight other justices--was that a state statute was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause if it withheld welfare benefits from resident aliens or aliens who had not lived in the U.S. for the required number of years. According to Blackmun, the clause included aliens as well as citizens.

The Court also unanimously held that a state statute which discriminated on the basis of "alienness," would interfere with that alien's "right to enter and abide in any state on an equality of equal privileges with all citizens." Poverty-stricken aliens or those who were disabled would be unable to live where they wanted, if individual states could deny them their welfare rights.

Additionally, the Court held that since the U.S. Constitution dictated that the federal government held sway in matters of immigration and naturalization, the state statute was unconstitutional because it interfered with national policies. Finally, the Court held unanimously that section 1402(b) of the Social Security Act of 1935 did not authorize Arizona to withhold welfare benefits from resident aliens who had not lived in the U.S. for a total of 15 years.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Graham v. Richardson - Significance