Excerpted From: Ann L. Iijima, Minnesota Equal Protection in the Third Millennium: “Old Formulations” or “New Articulations”?, 20 William Mitchell Law Review 337 (1994) (323 Footnotes) (Full Document)
Equal protection guarantees are arguably the most important constitutional guarantees of individual rights. They balance governmental interests against two important individual rights: the right to be free from unnecessary governmental interference in the exercise of fundamental rights, and the right to be free from governmental discrimination against insular and politically powerless groups.
One hundred and seventy-five years ago, the United States Supreme Court laid the foundation for equal protection review of legislation. Courts have applied the highly deferential rational basis standard that developed from that early foundation under the equal protection provisions of both the United States and Minnesota Constitutions. Under both provisions, however, federal and state courts have found it necessary to adopt heightened standards of review in certain situations.
Part I of this Article provides an overview of equal protection jurisprudence.
Part II focuses on the efforts of federal courts to establish an equal protection standard that fairly balances the interests of the government and the interests of individuals.
Part III discusses a similar effort by Minnesota courts to establish a fair standard under the state constitution. This commentary examines the comparison engendered by Minnesota's two rational basis standards and discusses points of departure from the federal heightened scrutiny standards.
Part IV proposes and designs a multi-factor approach that would address the apparent concerns of the judiciary and provide clear guidance to state lawmakers. Part V concludes that, after a century-long effort to construct a just system based on rigid categories, Minnesota courts should abandon that attempt and adopt the multi-factor approach.
[. . .]
As Justice Wahl incisively noted, it is time to end the “battle of footnotes” over the appropriate Minnesota equal protection rational basis standard. The most responsible method would be to accept the court's historical need to balance the strengths of competing interests. One means to this end would be to acknowledge the existence of a two-tiered rational basis standard and to articulate the specific interests that implicate each tier. This method, while more consistent with the traditional multi-tiered approach established under both federal and Minnesota equal protection jurisprudence, fails to address the underlying inability of inflexible categories to respond to an infinite variety of governmental and individual interests.
The better method would be to honestly acknowledge the multi-factor balancing process that in fact influences the selection of the equal protection standard that will be applied. Using this ad hoc approach would establish a single standard for the convenience of the bench, bar, and parties, and would increase the public's confidence in the integrity of the legal system.
Chief Justice Marshall, when he formulated the rational basis standard for constitutionality of legislation, set in motion an on-going quest for a bright line. Minnesota jurisprudence has established, at last estimate, at least five “bright lines” with hints of additional sub-standards. Now, 175 years later, the time has come to acknowledge that the complexities of our society need not be reflected in a labyrinthine jurisprudential system. Rather, application of an ad hoc balancing standard would explicitly recognize the factors that, although not presently acknowledged, nonetheless effectively are applied through the courts' choice of standards. While the ad hoc approach arguably is not as “bright” as the current multi-tiered approach, its more accurate reflection of the actual judicial process is ultimately more lucid. As Justice Wahl wisely observed, “To insist on engaging in judicial review in the real world rather than in never-never land is not to impermissibly substitute our own values and policy judgments for those of the legislature but to move toward realism and protection of constitutional rights, this court's proper function.”
Associate Professor, William Mitchell College of Law. B.A. 1977, Carleton College; J.D. 1985, University of Minnesota.