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Personnel Adm'r of Massachusetts v. Feeney, 442 U.S. 256 (1979)

Personnel Administrator of Massachusetts v. Feeney

No. 78-233

Argued February 26, 1979

Decided June 5, 1979

442 U.S. 256


During her 12-year tenure as a state employee, appellee, who is not a veteran, had passed a number of open competitive civil service examinations for better jobs, but because of Massachusetts' veterans' preference statute she was ranked in each instance below male veterans who had achieved lower test scores than appellee. Under the statute, all veterans who qualify for state civil service positions must be considered for appointment ahead of any qualifying nonveterans. The statutory preference, which is available to "any person, male or female, including a nurse," who was honorably discharged from the United States Armed Forces after at least 90 days of active service, at least one day of which was during "wartime," operates overwhelmingly to the advantage of males. Appellee brought an action in Federal District Court, alleging that the absolute preference formula established in the Massachusetts statute inevitably operates to exclude women from consideration for the best state civil service jobs, and thus discriminates against women in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A three-judge court declared the statute unconstitutional and enjoined its operation, finding that, while the goals of the preference were legitimate and the statute had not been enacted for the purpose of discriminating against women, the exclusionary impact upon women was so severe as to require the State to further its goals through a more limited form of preference. On an earlier appeal, this Court vacated the judgment and remanded the case for further consideration in light of the intervening decision in Washington v. Davis, 426 U. S. 229, which held that a neutral law does not violate the Equal Protection Clause solely because it results in a racially disproportionate impact, and that, instead, the disproportionate impact must be traced to a purpose to discriminate on the basis of race. Upon remand, the District Court reaffirmed its original judgment, concluding that a veterans' hiring preference is inherently nonneutral, because it favors a class from which women have traditionally been excluded, and that the consequences of the Massachusetts absolute preference formula for the

Page 442 U. S. 257

employment opportunities of women were too inevitable to have been "unintended."

Held: Massachusetts, in granting an absolute lifetime preference to veterans, has not discriminated against women in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 442 U. S. 271-281.

(a) Classifications based upon gender must bear a close and substantial relationship to important governmental objectives. Although public employment is not a constitutional right and the States have wide discretion in framing employee qualifications, any state law overtly or covertly designed to prefer males over females in public employment would require an exceedingly persuasive justification to withstand a constitutional challenge under the Equal Protection Clause. Pp. 442 U. S. 271-273.

(b) When a statute gender-neutral on its face is challenged on the ground that its effects upon women are disproportionably adverse, a twofold inquiry is appropriate. The first question is whether the statutory classification is indeed neutral in the sense that it is not gender-based. If the classification itself, covert or overt, is not based upon gender, the second question is whether the adverse effect reflects invidious gender-based discrimination. Pp. 442 U. S. 273-274.

(c) Here, the appellee's concession and the District Court's finding that the Massachusetts statute is not a pretext for gender discrimination are clearly correct. Apart from the facts that the definition of "veterans" in the statute has always been neutral as to gender and that Massachusetts has consistently defined veteran status in a way that has been inclusive of women who have served in the military, this is not a law that can plausibly, or even rationally, be explained only as a gender-based classification. Significant numbers of nonveterans are men, and all nonveterans -- male as well as female -- are placed at a disadvantage. The distinction made by the Massachusetts statute is, as it seems to be, quite simply between veterans and nonveterans, not between men and women. Pp. 442 U. S. 274-275.

(d) Appellee's contention that this veterans' preference is "inherently nonneutral" or "gender-biased" in the sense that it favors a status reserved under federal military policy primarily to men is wholly at odds with the District Court's central finding that Massachusetts has not offered a preference to veterans for the purpose of discriminating against women; nor can it be reconciled with the assumption made by both the appellee and the District Court that a more limited hiring preference for veterans could be sustained, since the degree of the preference makes no constitutional difference. Pp. 442 U. S. 276-278.

(e) While it would be disingenuous to say that the adverse consequences of this legislation for women were unintended, in the sense

Page 442 U. S. 258

that they were not volitional or in the sense that they were not foreseeable, nevertheless "discriminatory purpose" implies more than intent as volition or intent as awareness of consequences; it implies that the decisionmaker selected or reaffirmed a particular course of action at least in part "because of," not merely "in spite of," its adverse effects upon an identifiable group. When the totality of legislative actions establishing and extending the Massachusetts veterans' preference are considered, the law remains what it purports to be: a preference for veterans of either sex over nonveterans of either sex, not for men over women. Pp. 442 U. S. 278-280.

(f) Although absolute and permanent preferences have always been subject to the objection that they give the veteran more than a square deal, the Fourteenth Amendment "cannot be made a refuge from ill-advised . . . laws." District of Columbia v. Brooke, 214 U. S. 138, 214 U. S. 150. The substantial edge granted to veterans by the Massachusetts statute may reflect unwise policy, but appellee has simply failed to demonstrate that the law in any way reflects a purpose to discriminate on the basis of sex. Pp. 442 U. S. 280-281.

451 F.Supp. 143, reversed and remanded.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL, BLACKMUN, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which WHITE, J., joined, post, p. 442 U. S. 281. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 442 U. S. 281.

Page 442 U. S. 259

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