The New Class-Blindness

Cary Franklin —

Legal advocates have scored some major class-related victories in 2018. In January, an appellate court held that the administration of California’s money bail system violated the Fourteenth Amendment rights of indigent defendants. In February, the Fifth Circuit held Harris County’s money bail procedures unconstitutional on the ground that they keep the “poor arrestee” behind bars “simply because he has less money than his wealthy counterpart.” But holdings that explicitly vindicate the constitutional rights of people without financial resources remain rare, and that rarity bolsters the widespread perception that Fourteenth Amendment law offers virtually no protection against class-based discrimination.

It is true that class-based discrimination does not trigger heightened scrutiny under equal protection in the way that race-based and sex-based discrimination do. Fifty years ago—in the era of Gideon v. Wainwright and Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections—it looked to many as if the Court was poised to recognize the poor as a protected class (or perhaps, as Frank Michelman famously argued, to recognize a constitutional right to some form of minimum welfare). But in San Antonio v. Rodriguez and the abortion funding decisions, the Burger Court both declined to recognize the poor as a protected class and rejected the idea that the Constitution guarantees minimum welfare.

Scholars have often viewed those decisions as excising all class-related concerns from Fourteenth Amendment law. But that view has obscured an important and ongoing form of class-related constitutional protection: one that resides not in equal protection but in fundamental rights doctrine. My new article (The New Class-Blindness, forthcoming in the Yale Law Journal) examines the long-standing and often overlooked forms of class-related constitutional protection the Court has developed in the fundamental rights context. These protections have played an important role in some areas of Fourteenth Amendment law for over half a century. But they are now under attack by conservative judges, who have begun to argue, for the first time, that it is impermissible for courts to consider class at all when adjudicating Fourteenth Amendment claims.

Continue reading