Houser v. State, 43603

Decision Date11 September 1975
Docket NumberNo. 43603,43603
Citation85 Wn.2d 803,540 P.2d 412
PartiesCharles HOUSER, and all other eighteen, nineteen and twenty-year-old Individuals similarly situated, Appellants, v. The STATE of Washington et al., Respondents.
CourtWashington Supreme Court

Voris, Lipscomb & Belcher, Michael C. Lipscomb, Bellingham, for appellants.

David S. McEachran, Whatcom County Pros. Atty., Bellingham, for respondents.

UTTER, Justice.

Charles Houser, III, brought this action on his own behalf and that of the class of all 18 to 20-year-olds in this state, challenging the constitutionality of the legislation that established a minimum age of 21 for the consumption of alcoholic beverages. The trial court rendered summary judgment in favor of the defendant state agencies, and Houser appeals. We affirm the ruling of the trial court.

Appellant sought from the court below a declaratory judgment that the 21-year-old drinking age deprived persons betwen the ages of 18 and 20 of the equal protection of the laws in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and Const. art. 1, § 12. He contended that no rational basis exists for the present statutory scheme under which Washington citizens are considered to be adults at the age of 18 for all purposes except the possession and consumption of alcohol. He supported this contention with evidence in the form of an expert's affidavit that indicated that several traditional arguments for maintaining the drinking age at 21 were without scientific support. 1 The state countered this claim by submitting to the court's notice two technical studies which contained data supporting the statutory age discrimination, 2 and by citing the single federal case in point, Republican College Council v. Winner, 357 F.Supp. 739 (E.D.Pa.1973), which upheld Pennsylvania's drinking age limitation against equal protection attack. The trial court found the state's studies and the reasoning of the Republican College case adequate to uphold the drinking-age statutes, regardless of the truth of the statements in appellant's expert's affidavit. It therefore granted the state's motion for summary judgment. Appellant's appeal challenges both the trial court's judicial notice of the state's studies and its refusal to grant him a trial on the merits of the contradictory factual claims.

In order to consider whether the trial court's disposition of the case was correct, we must first determine what standard of constitutional review appellant's equal protection claims properly invoked. The trial court assumed that the discrimination between 18 to 20-year-olds and those 21 and over with regard to drinking should be upheld if a 'rational relationship' was found to exist between it and a legitimate state purpose. We agree.

Certainly the 'strict scrutiny' applicable to suspect classifications and those which burden fundamental rights would not be appropriate here: age discriminations are not inherently 'suspect' (Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112, 295 n. 14, 91 S.Ct. 260, 27 L.Ed.2d 272 (1970) (Stewart, J., concurring); United States v. Duncan, 456 F.2d 1401 (9th Cir. 1972), 3 and the 'RIGHT' TO CONSUME ALCOHOL IS FAR FROM 'fundamental' (randles v. state liquor Control Board, 33 Wash.2d 688, 694, 206 P.2d 1209 (1949)). 4 The criminal penalties that drinking laws carry impact on the right to be free from imprisonment and would, in other contexts, make them subject to some more demanding scrutiny than 'minimum rationality' review. State v. Martinez, 85 Wash.2d 671, 538 P.2d 521 (1975); Cf. Jackson v. Indiana, 406 U.S. 715, 723--31, 92 S.Ct. 1845, 32 L.Ed.2d 435 (1972). However, the Twenty-First Amendment, which confers on the states 'something more than the normal state authority over public health, welfare, and morals' (California v. LaRue, 409 U.S. 109, 114, 93 S.Ct. 390, 395, 34 L.Ed.2d 342 (1972)), modifies the demands of the Fourteenth as to regulation of alcohol use and distribution and makes state action in this area subject only to the most lenient equal protection review, the 'rational relationship' standard the trial court applied.

To ascertain whether a rational relationship existed between the 21-year-old drinking age and a legitimate state purpose, the court took judicial notice of the studies submitted to it by the state. Appellant contends these studies were not judicially noticeable because the facts they contain were not 'well established and authoritatively settled.' This argument misconceives the function the court was performing in ruling on the constitutional issue before it. The state's summary judgment motion required the court to inquire not into the facts of the particular case at bar but into the general relationship between attainment of the age of 21 and the effect of alcohol consumption. The question it presented was essentially one of law, not fact: whether there was a 'rational relationship' between the statutory distinction and the state purposes it was alleged to serve. The finding that it was rational to believe that the discrimination did correspond to a permissible state objective was a step in the court's legal reasoning, not a conclusion regarding the factual background of the particular dispute before it.

A court 'may ascertain as it sees fit any fact that is merely a ground for laying down a rule of law . . .' Chastleton Corp. v. Sinclair, 264 U.S. 543, 458, 44 S.Ct. 405, 406, 68 L.Ed. 841 (1924). The restrictive rules governing judicial notice are not applicable to factual findings that simply supply premises in the process of legal reasoning. See Fed.R.Evidence 201(a), Advisory Committee's note; 2 K. Davis, Administrative Law Treatise §§ 15.02--15.06 (1958); E. Cleary, McCormick's Handbook of the Law of Evidence 768--69 (2d ed. 1972). In interpreting and developing the constitution and laws, courts cannot operate in a vacuum. In order to determine whether there is a 'rational relationship' between a statutory classification and an objective said to justify it, a court must look beyond the case reports and statute books into a world that is rich with probability and conjecture and almost devoid of settled certainty. It must make the best assessment it can from the best information it can obtain. Reputable scientific studies are one source of such information, increasingly utilized by courts in constitutional decision making. 5 The trial court thus did not err in noticing the studies submitted to it in this case.

In light of the information it had before it, the trial court was clearly correct in its grant of summary judgment for the state. Regardless of the arguments and allegations made by appellant, there was no 'genuine issue as to any material fact' (CR 56(c)) before the court. The sole material factual question on the summary judgment motion was whether there was a rational basis for the 21-year-old drinking age. The studies the state submitted established that basis. They showed, among other things, that there is reputable scientific evidence indicating that the impact of alcohol on driving ability is more profound in persons between the ages of 18 and 20 than in persons over 21. 6 Appellant challenged this conclusion, but did not claim that the data on which it was based were wholly unscientific, fraudulent, or otherwise so unreliable that it would be irrational to give them credence. 7 The trial court therefore correctly ruled that a "state of facts reasonably (could) be conceived that would sustain (the classification)" (Sonitrol Northwest, Inc. v. Seattle, 84 Wash.2d 588, 590, 528 P.2d 474, 476 (1974)): the authors of the studies conceived such a state of facts and provided sufficient data in support of it to make that conception reasonable. Nothing appellant or his expert...

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  • Felix v. Milliken
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Western District of Michigan
    • December 22, 1978
    ...a fundamental right. Republican College Council of Pennsylvania v. Winner, 357 F.Supp. 739, 740 (E.D.Pa.1973); Houser v. State, 85 Wash.2d 803, 540 P.2d 412, 414 (1975) (en banc); cf. California v. LaRue, 409 U.S. 109, 114, 93 S.Ct. 390, 34 L.Ed.2d 342 If a fundamental right is not involved......
  • State v. Balzer, 21805-4-II
    • United States
    • Washington Court of Appeals
    • April 17, 1998
    ...that enable the court to interpret the law. Wyman v. Wallace, 94 Wash.2d 99, 102, 615 P.2d 452 (1980); see also Houser v. State, 85 Wash.2d 803, 807, 540 P.2d 412 (1975), overruled on other grounds, State v. Smith, 93 Wash.2d 329, 610 P.2d 869 (1980) (legislative facts supply premises in th......
  • State v. Smith
    • United States
    • Washington Supreme Court
    • April 24, 1980
    ...We have not, contrary to defendants' suggestion, adopted this standard. To the extent, however, that Martinez, Houser v. State, 85 Wash.2d 803, 540 P.2d 412 (1975), and Standow v. Spokane, 88 Wash.2d 624, 564 P.2d 1145 (1977), contain dicta to the contrary, they are expressly overruled.3 Th......
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    • Washington Supreme Court
    • October 26, 1989
    ...See, e.g., Purchase, 108 Wash.2d at 222, 737 P.2d 661; Young, 99 Wash.2d at 657, 663 P.2d 834, 672 P.2d 1267.58 See Houser v. State, 85 Wash.2d 803, 808, 540 P.2d 412 (1975), overruled on other grounds in State v. Smith, 93 Wash.2d 329, 610 P.2d 869 (1980).59 See Woodring v. Jacobino, 54 Wa......
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