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United States v. Virginia 1996

United States v. Virginia 1996

Petitioner: United States

Respondents: Commonwealth of Virginia, Governor Lawrence Douglas Wilder, Virginia Military Institute, et al.

Petitioner's Claim: That the Virginia Military Institute's refusal to admit female students violated the Fourteenth Amendment

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Paul Bender, U.S. Deputy Solicitor General

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Theodore B. Olsen

Justices for the Court: Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, William H. Rehnquist, David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens

Justices Dissenting: Antonin Scalia (Clarence Thomas did not participate)

Date of Decision: June 26, 1996

Decision: Excluding women from state-funded schools violates the Fourteenth Amendment.


Significance: America's last two state-funded all-male colleges were forced to admit women or give up state funding.

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from discrimination by state governments. (Discrimination is unequal treatment of people in the same situation.) States and organizations that receive state funding must obey the Equal Protection Clause. Governments use the Equal Protection Clause to end discrimination based on race, religion, and sex or gender. In 1996 the U.S. Supreme Court used it to force an all-male, state-funded military college in Virginia to accept female students.

The Virginia Military Institute (VMI) is a state-funded military college that opened in Lexington, Virginia, in 1839. Around 1990 a female high school student complained to the U.S. Department of Justice that VMI would not accept female students. (The U.S. Department of Justice is the branch of the federal government that enforces federal law by prosecuting people who violate the law.) In 1990 the Justice Department filed a case accusing Virginia and VMI of violating the Equal Protection Clause by refusing to accept women at VMI. In the two years before the lawsuit, VMI ignored requests from more than 300 women about attending college there.

When the case went to trial in a federal court, VMI said that its long tradition of excluding women was important to its goal of producing citizen-soldiers. According to VMI, citizen-soldiers are men who can be military leaders during war and leaders in society during peacetime. Students at VMI receive a military-style education that includes tough physical training and cramped living quarters. VMI said admitting women would prevent it from providing this education to men.

After a six-day trial, Judge Jackson L. Kiser ruled that VMI could continue to exclude women. Kiser agreed that the all-male school served Virginia's substantial interest in giving men a military-style education.

The U.S. Department of Justice appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Writing for the court on October 5, 1992, Judge Paul V. Niemeyer agreed that Virginia had a substantial interest in providing a military education to its citizens. But Judge Niemeyer also said that providing that education to men only violated the Equal Protection Clause. Judge Niemeyer ruled that Virginia must either admit women to VMI, open a separate military school for women, or stop giving money to VMI. (A school that does not get money from the state or federal government does not have to obey the Equal Protection Clause.) Niemeyer ordered Virginia to choose an option and to ask Judge Kiser to approve the plan.

Separate but equal?

Virginia and VMI responded by creating Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership (VWIL), an all-female program at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia. VWIL shared VMI's goal of producing citizen-soldiers, but it did not have the same military-style features. VWIL cadets lived separately instead of together and had more classroom instruction than physical training. VWIL also had fewer academic programs, received less state funding, and had fewer Ph.D. professors than VMI. Finally, VWIL could not offer the reputation VMI had earned over 150 years of providing education.

After reviewing VWIL's program, Judge Kiser ruled that it satisfied the Equal Protection Clause. When the Justice Department appealed this time, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals approved Judge Kiser's decision. It said that although VMI and VWIL were not identical, they were close enough to provide both men and women with a military-style education in Virginia.

Reversing discrimination

The Justice Department appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 26, 1996, the Supreme Court voted 7–1 that VMI must either give up state funding or admit women. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, wrote the opinion for the Court. (Justice Clarence Thomas did not participate in the decision because his son was attending VMI.)

In her opinion, Justice Ginsburg said that under the Equal Protection Clause, sex discrimination is allowed only if it serves a substantial state interest. A substantial state interest is one that is important enough to make sex discrimination acceptable, such as creating jobs for women. According to Ginsburg, the state interest being served may not rely on old ideas that women are less talented than men. It also may not "create or perpetuate [continue] the legal, social, and economic inferiority of women."

Ginsburg decided that VMI's all-male program did not serve a substantial state interest in Virginia. She said the goal of producing citizen-soldiers with a military education does not require excluding women, and that women are able to succeed at VMI and would not ruin the quality of its program. Ginsburg said, "Women's successful entry into the Federal military academies, and their participation in the nation's military forces, indicate that Virginia's fear for the future of VMI may not be solidly grounded."

Ginsburg also addressed the idea that VWIL provided a separate but equal education for women. After looking at the two programs, Ginsburg decided that VWIL was a "pale shadow" of VMI's famous program. "Women seeking and fit for a VMI quality education cannot be offered anything less under the State's obligation to afford the genuinely equal protection," she wrote.

FIRST WOMAN AT THE CITADEL

I t took a legal battle for Shannon R. Faulkner to become the first female cadet at the Citadel, a previously all-male military college in Charleston, South Carolina. The Citadel accepted Faulkner's application in 1993 only because she failed to say she was female. The Citadel refused to admit Faulkner when it learned her gender. Faulkner filed a lawsuit, and on July 22, 1994, a federal trial court ruled that the Citadel violated the Equal Protection Clause. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling in April 1995 that South Carolina either had to admit women to the Citadel or create a military school for women.

Faulkner joined the Citadel's Corps of Cadets on August 14, 1995. On her first day of training, she suffered heat exhaustion and received treatment at the school's medical facility, where four male cadets also were treated. Faulkner returned to classes four days later, but then left the Citadel. Observers said that it was difficult for Faulkner to be the only woman at a school that did not want to accept her. Thirty-four male cadets from her group, however, also quit during the first week. Faulkner's failure to complete the Citadel's program did not harm the example she set for women.


Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion, disagreeing with the Supreme Court's decision. Justice Scalia believed that single-gender education was an important option for students, and that the Court's decision would destroy that option. Scalia wrote, "I do not think any of us, women included, will be better off for its destruction."

A few good women

The Supreme Court's decision opened the doors for women at both VMI and the Citadel in South Carolina, the United States's last two state-funded, all-male military colleges. Although officials at both colleges were disappointed by the decision, they promised to obey it with honor. On May 15, 1999, Melissa K. Graham and Chih-Yuan Ho became the first women to graduate from VMI.

Suggestions for further reading

Hanmer, Trudy J. Sexism and Sex Discrimination. New York, NY: Franklin Watts, 1990.

The World Book Encyclopedia, 1997 ed., entries on "Education," "Coeducation." Chicago, IL: World Book, 1997.

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