427 U.S. 307 (1976), 74-1044, Massachusetts Board of Retirement v. Murgia

Docket Nº:No. 74-1044
Citation:427 U.S. 307, 96 S.Ct. 2562, 49 L.Ed.2d 520
Party Name:Massachusetts Board of Retirement v. Murgia
Case Date:June 25, 1976
Court:United States Supreme Court

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427 U.S. 307 (1976)

96 S.Ct. 2562, 49 L.Ed.2d 520

Massachusetts Board of Retirement



No. 74-1044

United States Supreme Court

June 25, 1976

Argued December 10, 1975




A Massachusetts statute making it mandatory for a uniformed state police officer to retire at age 50 held not to deny equal protection of the laws in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

(a) Rationality, rather than strict scrutiny, is the proper standard for determining whether the statute violates equal protection. Equal protection analysis requires strict scrutiny of a legislative classification only when it impermissibly interferes with the exercise of a fundamental right or operates to the peculiar disadvantage of a suspect class. Here, mandatory retirement at 50 does not implicate any fundamental right of a uniformed state police officer over that age, since a right of governmental employment per se is not fundamental, and the class of such officers over 50 does not constitute a suspect class, since classifications based on age are not considered suspect.

(b) Since physical ability generally declines with age, mandatory retirement at 50 serves to remove from police service those whose fitness for uniformed police work has presumptively diminished with age and is, therefore, rationally related to the State's announced legitimate objective of protecting the public by assuring the physical preparedness of its uniformed police. There is no indication that the statute has the effect of excluding from service so few officers who are in fact unqualified as to render age 50 a criterion wholly unrelated to such objective. While the State perhaps has not chosen the best means to accomplish its purpose, where rationality is the test, a statute "does not violate the Equal Protection Clause merely because the classifications made by [it] are imperfect." Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, 485.

376 F.Supp. 753 and 386 F.Supp. 179, reversed.

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Per curiam opinion.


This case presents the question whether the provision of Mass.Gen.Laws Ann. c. 32, § 26(3)(a) (1966), that a uniformed state police officer "shall be retired . . . upon his attaining age fifty," denies appellee police officer equal protection of the laws in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.1

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[96 S.Ct. 2565] Appellee Robert Murgia was an officer in the Uniformed Branch of the Massachusetts State Police. The Massachusetts Board of Retirement retired him upon his 50th birthday. Appellee brought this civil action in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, alleging that the operation of § 26(3)(a) denied him equal protection of the laws and requesting the convening of a three-judge court under

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28 U.S.C. §§ 2281, 2284.2 The District Judge dismissed appellee's complaint on the ground that the complaint did not allege a substantial constitutional question. 345 F.Supp. 1140 (1972). On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in an unreported memorandum, set aside the District Court judgment and remanded the case with direction to convene a three-judge court. Upon a record consisting of depositions, affidavits, and other documentary material submitted by the parties, the three-judge court filed an opinion that declared § 26(3)(a) unconstitutional on the ground that "a classification based on age 50 alone lacks a rational basis in furthering any substantial state interest," and enjoined enforcement of the statute. 376 F.Supp. 753, 754 (1974). We noted probable jurisdiction, 421 U.S. 974 (1975), and now reverse.

The primary function of the Uniformed Branch of the Massachusetts State Police is to protect persons and property and maintain law and order. Specifically, uniformed officers participate in controlling prison and civil disorders, respond to emergencies and natural disasters, patrol highways in marked cruisers, investigate crime, apprehend criminal suspects, and provide backup support for local law enforcement personnel. As the District Court observed, "service in this branch is, or can be, arduous." 376 F.Supp. at 754. "[H]igh versatility is required, with few, if any, backwaters available for the partially superannuated." Ibid. Thus,

even [appellee's] experts concede that there is a general relationship between

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advancing age and decreasing physical ability to respond to the demands of the job.

Id. at 755.

These considerations prompt the requirement that uniformed state officers pass a comprehensive physical examination biennially until age 40. After that, until mandatory retirement at age 50, uniformed officers must pass annually a more rigorous examination, including an electrocardiogram and tests for gastro-intestinal bleeding. Appellee Murgia had passed such an examination four months before he was retired, and there is no dispute that, when he retired, his excellent physical and mental health still rendered him capable of performing the duties of a uniformed officer.

The record includes the testimony of three physicians: that of the State Police [96 S.Ct. 2566] Surgeon, who testified to the physiological and psychological demands involved in the performance of uniformed police functions; that of an associate professor of medicine, who testified generally to the relationship between aging and the ability to perform under stress; and that of a surgeon, who also testified to aging and the ability safely to perform police functions. The testimony clearly established that the risk of physical failure, particularly in the cardiovascular system, increases with age, and that the number of individuals in a given age group incapable of performing stress functions increases with the age of the group. App. 77-78, 174-176. The testimony also recognized that particular individuals over 50 could be capable of safely performing the functions of uniformed officers. The associate professor of medicine, who was a witness for the appellee, further testified that evaluating the risk of cardiovascular failure in a given individual would require a number of detailed studies. Id. at 77-78.

In assessing appellee's equal protection claim, the District Court found it unnecessary to apply a strict-scrutiny test, see Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S. 618 (1969), for

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it determined that the age classification established by the Massachusetts statutory scheme could not in any event withstand a test of rationality, see Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471 (1970). Since there had been no showing that reaching age 50 forecasts even "imminent change" in an officer's physical condition, the District Court held that compulsory retirement at age 50 was irrational under a scheme that assessed the capabilities of officers individually by means of comprehensive annual physical examinations. We agree that rationality is the proper standard by which to test whether compulsory retirement at age 50 violates equal protection. We disagree, however, with the District Court's determination that the age 50 classification is not rationally related to furthering a legitimate state interest.


We need state only briefly our reasons for agreeing that strict scrutiny is not the proper test for determining whether the mandatory retirement provision denies appellee equal protection. San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 16 (1973), reaffirmed that equal protection analysis requires strict scrutiny of a legislative classification only when the classification impermissibly interferes with the exercise of a fundamental right3 or operates to the peculiar disadvantage of a suspect class.4 Mandatory retirement at age 50

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under the Massachusetts statute involves neither situation.

This Court's decisions give no support to the proposition that a right of governmental employment per se is fundamental. See San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, supra; Lindsey v. Normet, 405 U.S. 56, 73 (1972); Dandridge v. Williams, supra at 485. Accordingly, we have expressly stated that a standard less than strict scrutiny "has consistently been applied to state legislation restricting [96 S.Ct. 2567] the availability of employment opportunities." Ibid.

Nor does the class of uniformed state police officers over 50 constitute a suspect class for purposes of equal protection analysis. Rodriguez, supra at 28, observed that a suspect class is one

saddled with such disabilities, or subjected to such a history of purposeful unequal treatment, or relegated to such a position of political powerlessness as to command extraordinary protection from the majoritarian political process.

While the treatment of the aged in this Nation has not been wholly free of discrimination, such persons, unlike, say, those who have been discriminated against on the basis of race or national origin, have not experienced a "history of purposeful unequal treatment" or been subjected to unique disabilities on the basis of stereotyped characteristics not truly indicative of their abilities. The class subject to the compulsory retirement feature of the Massachusetts statute consists of uniformed state police officers over the age of 50. It cannot be said to discriminate only against the elderly. Rather, it draws the line at a certain age in middle life. But even old age does not define a "discrete and insular" group, United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144, 152-153, n. 4 (1938), in need of "extraordinary protection from the majoritarian political process." Instead, it marks a stage that each of us will reach if we live out

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our normal span. Even if the statute could be said to impose a penalty upon a class defined...

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