James v. Valtierra

402 U.S. 137, 91 S. Ct. 1331 (1971)



The United States Supreme Court has held that an amendment created a classification based upon race because it required that laws dealing with racial housing matters could take effect only if they survived a mandatory referendum while other housing ordinances took effect without any such special election. Because the core of the Fourteenth Amendment is the prevention of meaningful and unjustified official distinctions based on race, racial classifications are constitutionally suspect and subject to the most rigid scrutiny. They bear a far heavier burden of justification than other classifications.


Article 34 of the California Constitution provides that no low-income housing project shall be developed, constructed, or acquired in any manner by a state public body until the project is approved by a majority vote in a city, town, or county referendum. After low-income housing proposals were defeated in local referendums, some low-income persons who desired such housing brought suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, alleging that Article 34 was unconstitutional because its referendum requirement violated the Federal Constitution's supremacy clause, privileges and immunities clause, and equal protection clause. A three-judge District Court held that Article 34 violated the equal protection clause. On appeal, the United States Supreme Court reversed.


Did the trial court err in ruling that Article 34 of the California Constitution was unconstitutional?




Article 34 did not violate the supremacy clause or the privileges and immunities clause. Since Article 34 did not rest upon distinctions based on race, the Article did not constitute racial discrimination in violation of the equal protection clause and since the referendum was a procedure for democratic decision-making, and since low- income persons who desired public housing were not singled out for mandatory referendums which no other group had to face, Article 34 did not deny such persons equal protection. The Court held that the district court erred in invalidating art. XXXIV because it did not rest on racial classifications. The Article required referendum approval for any low-rent public housing project, not only for projects which would be occupied by a racial minority. California's entire history demonstrated the repeated use of referendums to give citizens a voice on questions of public policy. An examination of California law revealed that persons advocating low-income housing had not been singled out for mandatory referendums while no other groups had to face that obstacle. The people of California also decided by their own vote to require referendum approval of low-rent public housing projects.

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