Kramer v. Union Free School District No 15, 258

Decision Date16 June 1969
Docket NumberNo. 258,258
Citation89 S.Ct. 1886,395 U.S. 621,23 L.Ed.2d 583
PartiesMorris H. KRAMER, Appellant, v. UNION FREE SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 15 et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Osmond K. Fraenkel, New York City, for appellant.

John P. Jehu, Albany, N.Y., for appellees.

Mr. Chief Justice WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case we are called on to determine whether § 2012 of the New York Education Law, McKinney's Consol.Laws, c. 16, is constitutional. The legislation provides that in certain New York school districts residents who are otherwise eligible to vote in state and federal elections may vote in the school district election only if they (1) own (or lease) taxable real property within the district, or (2) are parents (or have custody of) children enrolled in the local public schools. Appellant, a bachelor who neither owns nor leases taxable real property, filed suit in federal court claiming that § 2012 denied him equal protection of the laws in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. With one judge dissenting, a three-judge District Court dismissed appellant's complaint. Finding that § 2012 does violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, we reverse.


New York law provides basically three methods of school board selection. In some large city districts, the school board is appointed by the mayor or city council. N.Y.Educ.Law §§ 2553, subds. 2, 4 (1953), as amended (Supp.1968). On the other hand, in some cities, primarily those with less than 125,000 residents, the school board is elected at general or municipal elections in which all qualified city voters may participate. N.Y.Educ.Law §§ 2502, subd. 2, 2553, subd. 3 (1953). Cf. N.Y.Educ.Law § 2531 (1953). Finally, in other districts such as the one involved in this case, which are primarily rural and suburban, the school board is elected at an annual meeting of qualified school district voters.1

The challenged statute is applicable only in the districts which hold annual meetings. To be eligible to vote at an annual district meeting, an otherwise qualified2 district resident must either (1) be the owner or lessee of taxable real property located in the district, (2) be the spouse of one who owns or leases qualifying property, or (3) be the parent or guardian of a child enrolled for a specified time during the preceding year in a local district school.

Although the New York State Department of Education has substantial responsibility for education in the State, the local school districts maintain significant control over the administration of local school district affairs. 3 Generally, the board of education has the basic responsibility for local school operation, including prescribing the courses of study, determining the textbooks to be used, and even altering and equipping a former schoolhouse for use as a public library. N.Y.Educ.Law § 1709 (1953). Additionally, in districts selecting members of the board of education at annual meetings, the local voters also pass directly on other district matters. For example, they must approve the school budget submitted by the school board. N.Y.Educ.Law §§ 2021, 2022 (1953).4 Moreover, once the budget is approved, the governing body of the villages within the school district must raise the money which has been declared 'necessary for teachers' salaries and the ordinary contingent expenses (of the schools).' N.Y.Educ.Law § 1717 (1953).5 The voters also may 'authorize such acts and vote such taxes as they shall deem expedient * * * for * * * equipping for library use any former schoolhouse * * * (and) for the purchase of land and buildings for agricultural, athletic, playground or social center purposes * * *.' N.Y.Educ.Law § 416 (1953).

Appellant is a 31-year-old college-educated stockbroker who lives in his parents' home in the Union Free School District No. 15, a district to which § 2012 applies. He is a citizen of the United States and has voted in federal and state elections since 1959. However, since he has no children and neither owns nor leases taxable real property, appellant's attempts to register for and vote in the local school district elections have been unsuccessful. After the school district rejected his 1965 application, appellant instituted the present class action challenging the constitutionality of the voter eligibility requirements.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York denied appellant's request (made pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2281) that a three-judge district court be convened, and granted appellees' motion to dismiss appellant's complaint. Kramer v. Union Free School District No. 15, 259 F.Supp. 164 (D.C.E.D.N.Y.1966). On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed, ruling appelln t's complaint warranted convening a three-judge court. Kramer v. Union Free School District No. 15, 379 F.2d 491 (C.A.2d Cir. 1967). On remand, the three-judge court ruled that § 2012 is constitutional and dismissed appellant's complaint. 282 F.Supp. 70. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1253, appellant filed a direct appeal with this Court; we noted probable jurisdiction. 393 U.S. 818, 89 S.Ct. 117, 21 L.Ed.2d 90 (1968).


At the outset, it is important to note what is not at issue in this case. The requirements of § 2012 that school district voters must (1) be citizens of the United States, (2) be bona fide residents of the school district, and (3) be at least 21 years of age are not challenged. Appellant agrees that the States have the power to impose reasonable citizenship, age, and residency requirements on the availability of the ballot. Cf. Carrington v. Rash, 380 U.S. 89, 91, 85 S.Ct. 775, 777, 13 L.Ed.2d 675 (1965); Pope v. Williams, 193 U.S. 621, 24 S.Ct. 573, 48 L.Ed. 817 (1904). The sole issue in this case is whether the additional requirements of § 2012—requirements which prohibit some district residents who are otherwise qualified by age and citizenship from participating in district meetings and school board elections—violate the Fourteenth Amendment's command that no State shall deny persons equal protection of the laws.

'In determining whether or not a state law violates the Equal Protection Clause, we must consider the facts and circumstances behind the law, the interests which the State claims to be protecting, and the interests of those who are disadvantaged by the classification.' Williams v. Rhodes, 393 U.S. 23, 30, 89 S.Ct. 5, 10, 21 L.Ed.2d 24 (1968). And, in this case, we must give the statute a close and exacting examination. '(S)ince the right to exercise the franchise in a free and unimpaired manner is preservative of other basic civil and political rights, any alleged infringement of the right of citizens to vote must be carefully and meticulously scrutinized.' Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 562, 84 S.Ct. 1362, 1381, 12 L.Ed.2d 506 (1964). See Williams v. Rhodes, supra, 393 U.S. at 31, 89 S.Ct. at 10; Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1, 17, 84 S.Ct. 526, 535, 11 L.Ed.2d 481 (1964). This careful examination is necessary because statutes distributing the franchise constitute the foundation of our representative society. Any unjustified discrimination in determining who may participate in political affairs or in the selection of public officials undermines the legitimacy of representative government.

Thus, state apportionment statutes, which may dilute the effectiveness of some citizens' votes, receive close scrutiny from this Court. Reynolds v. Sims, supra. See Avery v. Midland County, 390 U.S. 474, 88 S.Ct. 1114, 20 L.Ed.2d 45 (1968). No less rigid an examination is applicable to statutes denying the franchise to citizens who are otherwise qualified by residence and age.6 Statutes granting the franchise to residents on a selective basis always pose the danger of denying some citizens any effective voice in the governmental affairs which substantially affect their lives.7 Therefore, if a challenged state statute grants the right to vote to some bona fide residents of requisite age and citizenship and denies the franchise to others, the Court must determine whether the exclusions are necessary to promote a compelling state interest. See Carrington v. Rash, supra, 380 U.S., at 96, 85 S.Ct., at 780.

And, for these reasons, the deference usually given to the judgment of legislators does not extend to decisions concerning which resident citizens may participate in the election of legislators and other public officials. Those decisions must be carefully scrutinized by the Court to determine whether each resident citizen has, as far as is possible, an equal voice in the selections. Accordingly, when we are reviewing statutes which deny some residents the right to vote, the general presumption of constitutionality afforded state statutes and the traditional approval given state classifications if the Court can conceive of a 'rational basis' for the distinctions made8 are not applicable. See Harper v. Virginia State Bd. of Elections, 383 U.S. 663, 670, 86 S.Ct. 1079, 1083, 16 L.Ed.2d 169 (1966). The presumption of constitutionality and the approval given 'rational' classifications in other types of enactments9 are based on an assumption that the institutions of state government are structured so as to represent fairly all the people. However, when the challenge to the statute is in effect a challenge of this basic assumption, the assumption can no longer serve as the basis for presuming constitutionality. And, the assumption is no less under attack because the legislature which decides who may participate at the various levels of political choice is fairly elected. Legislation which delegates decision making to bodies elected by only a portion of those eligible to vote for the legislature can cause unfair representation. Such legislation can exclude a minority of voters from any voice in the decisions just as effectively as if the decisions were made by legislators the minority had no voice in selecting. 10


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