2 minute read

Massachusetts Board of Retirement v. Murgia

Not The Best Means . . . But Rational Means

Seven justices of the Supreme Court agreed that the retirement provision of the Massachusetts statute was constitutional. The justices, however, also reasoned that, as written, the act was "imperfect" because it sought to further the state interest of protecting the public by imposing a chronological limitation rather than one based on individualized testing. Justice Stevens did not take part in the consideration or the decision of the case, and Justice Marshall dissented, supporting the district court's decision.

The Supreme Court first decided which test for equal protection analysis should be used in assessing the constitutionality of the mandatory retirement provision. Agreeing with the district court, the justices found that strict scrutiny was not a proper test. It was used only when the exercise of a fundamental right was restricted or when a suspect group was treated unfairly. The Court found that a right of governmental employment was not by itself fundamental, and that a class of uniformed state police officers over 50 did not constitute a suspect class for purposes of equal protection analysis. Instead, the Court held that a suspect class was one "saddled" with disabilities, unequally treated with a specific purpose, or reduced to political powerlessness. In the case of over-50 police officers, the Court found that old age did not even define a discrete and insular group. It merely marked a stage that everyone would reach if they lived out their normal life span. Therefore, justices used the rational-basis standard to examine the age classification of the retirement provision.

The Court found that the retirement provision of the Massachusetts statute satisfied the rationality test because it was realistically related to the identified purpose of protecting the public by assuring physical preparedness of the Massachusetts uniformed police. Mandatory retirement at age 50 served to remove from police service those whose fitness for uniformed work preemptively had decreased with age. The Court reasoned that although the provision could have been tailored to determine fitness more precisely through individualized testing after age 50, a maximum-age limitation rationally satisfied the objective of assuring physical fitness. The Court concluded that the state perhaps had not chosen the best means to accomplish its purpose, but where rationality was the test a state did not violate the Equal Protection Clause merely because the classifications made by its laws were imperfect.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Marshall agreed with the decision of the district court and reemphasized what he believed was the problem created by not adhering to the results of annual individualized examinations as a means of determining competence. He saw no reason why uniformed police officers could not be able to continue service after attaining the age of 50. The medical examinations would still have the predictive ability concerning a police officer's fitness and they would be sufficient means to protect the state's interest. He concluded that there was no reason for automatically terminating those officers who reached the age of 50, and that such action seemed to him the "height of irrationality."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Massachusetts Board of Retirement v. Murgia - Significance, Rationality Of Mandatory Retirement, Not The Best Means . . . But Rational Means, Impact