3 minute read

Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center


The case helped improve rights of the mentally retarded.

Handicapped or differently abled persons were at the center of the Supreme Court's decision in Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center. In July of 1985, the High Court ruled that the city of Cleburne, Texas, violated the U.S. Constitution when it denied a zoning permit to the Cleburne Living Center (CLC). The center applied for a zoning permit for a house for the retarded. The house the center wanted to lease for the retarded was a residential group home.

The city of Cleburne classified the group home as a "hospital for the feebleminded" and told CLC they had to apply for a special use permit. CLC applied but the city denied them the special use permit. After the Cleburne City Council denied the center the permit, CLC filed suit. The suit stated that the city had violated the equal protection rights of CLC and its potential residents. CLC cited the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Equal Protection Clause states that no state shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." What this means is that all people in similar situations should be treated the same.

It is up to the courts to devise standards when dealing with a challenge to the Equal Protection Clause. In this case, different standards were used by different courts. In district court, the city of Cleburne won; the district court upheld its decision not to grant CLC its special use permit. CLC appealed this decision and the court of appeals reversed the district court's decision. Finally, the Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeals decision, but clarified its ruling.

The district court used the "heightened-scrutiny" equal protection test in making its decision. "Heightened-scrutiny" refers to a law singling out members of certain groups for special treatment. If groups such as racial minorities, illegitimate children, women, or aliens are singled out for particular treatment in a law, that law is unconstitutional. It is unconstitutional unless the law serves either an "important" or "compelling" interest to the government.

The court of appeals, in reversing the district court's decision in Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, stated that the retarded, as a group, were entitled to "heightened scrutiny." The reasoning used by the court of appeals was that the retarded lacked political power and also had a history of being discriminated against. Although all nine of the Supreme Court justices agreed that when the city of Cleburne denied the zoning permit it did so in violation of the Constitution, they disagreed on the underlying question involved. They disagreed with the lower court's reasoning but agreed with its end result.

According to the New York Times, the Supreme Court said that "mere negative attitudes, vague fear, and irrational prejudice may not form the basis for official action placing the retarded at a disadvantage."

The Supreme Court found these factors at the center of the city of Cleburne's decision-a decision, it must be noted, not to permit a group home for 13 retarded citizens in an area that was already zoned for nursing homes, group homes and apartments. The Supreme Court justices even went as far as to state that not only was the city of Cleburne's decision unconstitutional, it was, the Court said, irrational. However, the Court also said that the retarded as a group do not have the characteristics to receive "heightened scrutiny." Justice White told the New York Times that the reasoning used by the court of appeals to come to a decision in Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center was incorrect. White said mental retardation is a broad phrase and decisions about treating the retarded are "very much a task for legislators guided by qualified professionals and not by the perhaps ill-informed opinions of the judiciary."

Justice Marshall criticized the Supreme Court's ruling in this case. Marshall said that the Court "pretends" that its equal protection analysis uses a firm set of categories. He argued that the Court has adjusted the degree of justification it demands based on more sensitive calculations. By voting that the city of Cleburne's ordinance was invalid, the Supreme Court did much for the mentally retarded in general. Although mentally retarded people are different, the Court stated, the difference is irrelevant--inappropriate, unless the proposal in question threatens a city's interests in a way those granted permits would not. However, viewed as a constitutional test case by advocates for the mentally retarded Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, when looked at in a specific way, only sheds light on the Supreme Court's mixed message.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center - Significance, Should Facilities For Mentally Retarded Persons Be Allowed In Neighborhoods?, Further Readings