Johnson v. Robison 8212 1297, 72

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation415 U.S. 361,39 L.Ed.2d 389,94 S.Ct. 1160
Docket NumberNo. 72,72
PartiesDonald E. JOHNSON, Administrator of Veterans' Affairs, et al., Appellants, v. William Robert ROBISON, etc. —1297
Decision Date04 March 1974

Appellee, who had been exempted from military service as a Class I—O conscientious objector but who performed required alternative civilian service, after being denied educational benefits under the Veterans' Readjustment Benefits Act of 1966, brought this class action for a declaratory judgment that the provisions of the Act making him and his class ineligible for such benefits violated the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom and the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection of the laws. After denying appellants' motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction because of 38 U.S.C. § 211(a), which prohibits judicial review of decisions of the Administrator of Veterans' Affairs on any question of law or fact under laws administered by the Veterans' Administration providing for veterans' benefits, the District Court rejected appellee's First Amendment claim but sustained the Fifth Amendment claim. Held:

1. Section 211(a) does not extend to actions challenging the constitutionality of veterans' benefits legislation but is aimed at prohibiting review only of those decisions of law or fact arising in the administration of a statute providing for veterans' benefits, and hence is inapplicable to this action, neither the text of the statute nor its legislative history showing a contrary intent. Pp. 366—374.

2. The challenged sections of the Act do not create an arbitrary classification in violation of appellee's right to equal protection of the laws. Pp. 374—383.

(a) The quantitative and qualitative distinctions between the disruption caused by military service and that caused by alternative civilian service—military service involving a six-year commitment and far greater loss of personal freedom, and alternative civilian service involving only a two-year obligation and no requirement to leave civilian life—form a rational basis for Congress' classification limiting educational benefits to military service veterans as a means of helping them to readjust to civilian life. Pp. 378 382.

(b) The statutory classification also bears a rational relationship to the Act's objective of making military service more attractive. P. 382.

3. The Act does not violate appellee's right of free exercise of religion. Gillette v. United States, 401 U.S. 437, 91 S.Ct. 828, 28 L.Ed.2d 168. Pp. 383—386.

(a) The withholding of educational benefits to appellee and his class involves only an incidental burden, if any burden at all, upon their free exercise of religion. P. 385.

(b) Appellee and his class were not included as beneficiaries, not because of any legislative design to interfere with their free exercise of religion, but because to include them would not rationally promote the Act's purposes. P. 385.

(c) The Government's substantial interest in raising and supporting armies, Art. I, § 8, is of 'a kind and weight' clearly sufficient to sustain the challenged legislation. Pp. 385—386.

352 F.Supp. 848, reversed.

Gerald P. Norton, Washington, D.C., for appellants.

Michael David Rosenberg, for appellee.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

A draftee accorded Class I—O conscientious objector status and completing performance of required alternative civilian service1 does not qualify under 38 U.S.C. § 1652(a)(1) as a 'veteran who . . . served on active duty' (defined in 38 U.S.C. § 101(21) as 'full-time duty in the Armed Forces'), and is therefore not an 'eligible veteran' entitled under 38 U.S.C. § 1661(a) to veterans' educational benefits provided by the Veterans' Readjustment Benefits Act of 1966.2 Appellants, the Veterans' Administration and the Administrator of Veterans' Affairs, for that reason, denied the application for educational assistance of appellee Robison, a conscientious objector who filed his application after he satisfactorily completed two years of alternative civilian service at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, Boston. Robison thereafter commenced this class action3 in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, seeking a declaratory judgment that 38 U.S.C. §§ 101(21), 1652(a)(1), and 1661(a), read together, violated the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom and the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection of the laws.4 Appellants moved to dismiss the action on the ground, among others, that the District Court lacked jurisdiction because of 38 U.S.C. § 211(a) which prohibits judicial review of decisions of the Administrator.5 The District Court denied the motion, and, on the merits, rejected appellee's First Amendment claim, but sustained the equal protection claim and entered a judgment declaring 'that 38 U.S.C. §§ 1652(a)(1) and 1661(a) defining 'eligible veteran' and providing for entitlement to educational assistance are unconstitutional and that 38 U.S.C. § 101(21) defining 'active duty' is unconstitutional with respect to chapter 34 of Title 38, United States Code, 38 U.S.C. §§ 1651 1697, conferring Veterans' Educational Assistance, for the reason that said sections deny plaintiff and members of his class due process of law in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. . . .' 352 F.Supp. 848, 862 (1973). 6 We post- poned consideration of the question of jurisdiction in light of § 211(a) to the hearing on the merits, and set the case for oral argument with No. 72—700, Hernandez v. Veterans' Administration, 415 U.S. 391, 94 S.Ct. 1177, 39 L.Ed.2d 412. 411 U.S. 981, 93 S.Ct. 2267, 36 L.Ed.2d 957 (1973).7 We hold, in agreement with the District Court, that § 211(a) is inapplicable to this action and therefore that appellants' motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction of the subject matter was properly denied. On the merits, we agree that appellee's First Amendment claim is without merit but disagree that §§ 1652(a)(1), 1661(a), and 101(21) violate the Fifth Amendment and therefore reverse the judgment of the District Court.


We consider first appellants' contention that § 211(a) bars federal courts from deciding the constitutionality of veterans' benefits legislation. Such a construction would, of course, raise serious questions concerning the constitutionality of § 211(a),8 and in such case 'it is a cardinal principle that this Court will first ascertain whether a construction of the statute is fairly possible by which the (constitutional) question(s) may be avoided.' United States v. Thirty-seven Photographs, 402 U.S. 363, 369, 91 S.Ct. 1400, 1404, 28 L.Ed.2d 822 (1971).

Plainly, no explicit provision of § 211(a) bars judicial consideration of appellee's constitutional claims. That section provides that 'the decisions of the Administrator on any question of law or fact under any law administered by the Veterans' Administration providing benefits for veterans . . . shall be final and conclusive and no . . . court of the United States shall have power or jurisdiction to review any such decision . . ..' (Emphasis added.) The prohibitions would appear to be aimed at review only of those decisions of law or fact that arise in the administration by the Veterans' Administration of a statute providing benefits for veterans. A decision of law or fact 'under' a statute is made by the Administrator in the interpretation or application of a particular provision of the statute to a particular set of facts, Appellee's constitutional challenge is not to any such decision of the Administrator, but rather to a decision of Congress to create a statutory class entitled to benefits that does not include I—O conscientious objectors who performed alternative civilian service. Thus, as the District Court stated: 'The questions of law presented in these proceedings arise under the Constitution, not under the statute whose validity is challenged.' 352 F.Supp., at 853.

This construction is also supported by the administrative practice of the Veterans' Administration. 'When faced with a problem of statutory construction, this Court shows great deference to the interpretation given the statute by the officers or agency charged with its administration.' Udall v. Tallman, 380 U.S. 1, 16, 85 S.Ct. 792, 801, 13 L.Ed.2d 61 (1965). The Board of Veterans' Appeals expressly disclaimed authority to decide constitutional questions in Appeal of Sly, C—27 593 725 (May 10, 1972). There the Board, denying a claim for educational assistance by a I—O conscientious objector, held that '(t)his decision does not reach the issue of the constitutionality of the pertinent laws as this matter is not within the jurisdiction of this Board.' Sly thus accepts and follows the principle that '(a)djudication of the constitutionality of congressional enactments has generally been thought beyond the jurisdiction of administrative agencies. See Public Utilities Comm'n v. United States, 355 U.S. 534, 539, (78 S.Ct. 446, 450, 2 L.Ed.2d 470) (1958); Engineers Public Service Co. v. SEC, 78 U.S.App.D.C. 199, 215—216, 138 F.2d 936, 952—953 (1943), dismissed as moot, 332 U.S. 788, (68 S.Ct. 96, 92 L.Ed. 370).' Oestereich v. Selective Service Board, 393 U.S. 233, 242, 89 S.Ct. 414, 419, 21 L.Ed.2d 402 (1968) (Harlan, J., concurring in result); see Jaffe, Judicial Review: Question of Law, 69 Harv.L.Rev. 239, 271—275 (1955).

Nor does the legislative history accompanying the 1970 amendment of § 211(a) demonstrate a congressional intention to bar judicial review even of constitutional questions. No-review clauses similar to § 211(a) have been a part of veterans' benefits legislation since 1933.9 While the legislative history accompanying these precursor no-review clauses is almost nonexistent, 10 the Administrator, in a letter written in 1952 in connection with a revision of the clause under consideration by the Subcommittee of the House...

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