3 minute read


Fundamental Rights

The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that a state can impose residency requirements as a condition of eligibility for fundamental rights only under certain circumstances. A fundamental right is any right that is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. A state must have a compelling STATE INTEREST to justify the restriction of basic rights by the imposition of residency requirements. The courts ultimately determine whether the state has a significant interest by examining and BALANCING the interests of the state against the rights of the person. Where a residency requirement does not serve compelling state interests, it will be held unconstitutional as a denial of equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Constitution. The courts have addressed residency requirements involving WELFARE and public housing benefits, basic medical care, and voting that are based on fundamental rights.

Welfare In Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S. 618, 89 S. Ct. 1322, 22 L. Ed. 2d 600 (1969), the Supreme Court reviewed two state laws that imposed durational residency requirements on persons applying for welfare. Both states required a person to be a resident for one year before becoming eligible for benefits. The states claimed that this discriminatory treatment of new arrivals within their borders maintained the fiscal integrity of state public assistance programs, provided an objective method of determining residency, and encouraged new residents to seek employment.

The Court rejected these arguments, concluding that the constitutional guarantee of personal liberty gave each citizen the right to travel throughout the United States without unreasonable restrictions. This implied fundamental right of travel was restricted by the residency requirements, which were based on unsubstantiated claims of administrative convenience. Therefore the Court struck down the durational residency requirements as a violation of equal protection of the laws. The Court noted that a case-by-case examination was necessary to determine whether other types of durational requirements promoted compelling state interests or violated the constitutional right of interstate travel.

Public Housing Durational residency requirements were imposed as conditions for admission to low- and moderate-income public housing projects in various cities during the 1960s. The city of New Rochelle, New York, imposed a five-year residency period before a person could apply for public housing. Because the waiting list of applicants was long, a person could wait between eight and 15 years before obtaining public housing. When the law was challenged, a federal appellate court ruled that it was an unconstitutional deprivation of equal protection (King v. New Rochelle Municipal Housing Authority, 442 F.2d 646 [2d Cir. 1971], cert. denied, 404 U.S. 863, 92 S. Ct. 113, 30 L. Ed. 2d 107 [1971]). The appeals court rejected the city's contention that it had a compelling state interest to restrict public housing to longtime residents because each community has a responsibility to take care of its own citizens first. The court disagreed, finding that the city's plan created discriminatory classifications among its citizens without justification.

Medical Services A person who is a bona fide resident cannot be deprived of the right to receive basic medical services merely because he has not fulfilled durational residency requirements. The Supreme Court in Memorial Hospital v. Maricopa County, 415 U.S. 250, 94 S. Ct. 1076, 39 L. Ed. 2d 306 (1974), overturned an Arizona law that stated that an indigent person must be a resident of one year in the county before receiving nonemergency hospitalization or medical care at the expense of the county. The Court ruled that medical care is a basic necessity of life to an indigent person, comparable to welfare assistance. As in the Shapiro case, the Court held that the residency requirement restricted the right to travel. The fact that public services would be depleted by allowing new residents the same treatment as other residents did not justify the residency requirement because a state cannot apportion its services among its citizens.

Voting Rights A state has the right to require bona fide residency as a prerequisite to the exercise of the right to vote in its elections. The courts have also upheld durational residency requirements for voting. Beginning in the mid-1970s, however, many states began to abandon durational requirements, making it possible for a new resident to register to vote when he applied for a state driver's license. This "motorvoter" statute was first enacted in Minnesota (Minn. Stat. Ann. § 201.161 [West 1992]), and by 1992 some 27 states had some form of motorvoter law. Congress eliminated durational residency requirements for voting with the passage of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973gg et seq.). The act allows anyone over the age of 18 to register to vote while obtaining a driver's license.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Reputation to Owen Josephus RobertsResidency - Fundamental Rights, Other Rights