87 L. Ed. 2d 313, 105 S. Ct. 3249 (1985).
To decide whether a law violates the Equal Protection Clause, the court looks to three things: the character of the classification in question; the individual interests affected by the classification; and the governmental interests offered in support of the classification. Dunn v. Blumstein, 405 U.S. 330, 335, 31 L. Ed. 2d 274, 92 S. Ct. 995 (1971). Because the Supreme Court has developed more than one mode of analysis for Equal Protection challenges, the first issue in every equal protection dispute is which standard of scrutiny to apply to the facts and laws in controversy.
1. The Applicable Standard
With most forms of state action, courts will analyze the facts and laws to determine whether the classification at issue bears some rational relationship to a legitimate public purpose. E.g., Heller v. Doe, U.S. , 113 S. Ct. 2637, 2642, 125 L. Ed. 2d 257 (1993). However, when a classification disadvantages a "suspect class" or the individual interest at stake involves the exercise of a "fundamental right," courts strictly scrutinize the classification to determine if it is "precisely tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest." Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 216-17, 72 L. Ed. 2d 786, 102 S. Ct. 2382 (1981); see generally City of New York v. United States Dep't of Commerce, 34 F.3d 1114, 1128 (2d Cir. 1994) (describing different degrees of scrutiny utilized by Supreme Court). Further, because certain classifications give rise to recurring constitutional difficulties even though no suspect class or fundamental right is involved, the Supreme Court has developed an intermediate level of scrutiny through which courts review the classification to determine whether it is "substantially related to furthering an important governmental purpose." See Craig v. Boren, 429 U.S. 190, 50 L. Ed. 2d 397, 97 S. Ct. 451 (1976) (gender classifications); Lalli v. Lalli, 439 U.S. 259, 58 L. Ed. 2d 503, 99 S. Ct. 518 (1978) (classifications based on illegitimacy).
Several reported decisions cite Plyler v. Doe to justify the use of intermediate scrutiny in cases similar to the one at bar. See Horton v. Marshall Pub. Sch., 769 F.2d 1323, 1329-30 (8th Cir. 1985) (holding unconstitutional school district policy denying admission to children with no parent or guardian living within district); Major v. Nederland Indep. Sch. Dist., 772 F. Supp. 944, 948-49 (E.D. Tex. 1991) (holding unconstitutional school district policy requiring that students reside in the district with a parent or legal guardian in order to be admitted into the public schools); Nancy M. v. Scanlon, 666 F. Supp. 723, 727 (E.D. Pa. 1987) (declaring unconstitutional statute allowing school district to refuse to educate non-resident, dependent children living in foster homes within the district); see also Byrd v. Livingston Indep. Sch. Dist., 674 F. Supp. 225, 228-29 (E.D. Tex. 1987) (invalidating, without deciding level of scrutiny, statute under which school district refused education to resident child who did not establish residence for primary purpose of attending district schools). In Plyler, the Court invalidated a Texas statute which denied a free public education to the children of illegal immigrants living in Texas. 457 U.S. at 230. The Court acknowledged that the children of illegal aliens are not a suspect class and that public education is not a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution. Plyler, 457 U.S. at 221. Nevertheless, the Court held that an intermediate level of review was appropriate because the statute imposed "[a] lifetime of hardship on a discrete class of children not accountable for their disabling status." Id. 457 U.S. at 223.
Notwithstanding the above-cited cases, this court disagrees with plaintiffs' suggestion that Plyler justifies the application of an intermediate level of scrutiny to the facts of this case. The five-Justice Plyler majority, in deciding to apply intermediate level scrutiny to the Texas statute at issue, relied on the combination of a traditionally disadvantaged group (aliens) and an unusually important interest (education). In doing so, the Court avoided the need to decide whether either of these interests by itself justifies intermediate scrutiny. The Court later expressly limited Plyler to the "unique circumstances" that provoked its "unique confluence of theories and rationales." Kadrmas v. Dickinson Pub. Sch., 487 U.S. 450, 459, 101 L. Ed. 2d 399, 108 S. Ct. 2481 (1988) (quoting Plyler, 457 U.S. at 239, 243); see also Philadelphia Police & Fire Ass'n v. City of Philadelphia, 874 F.2d 156, 165 (3d Cir. 1989) (rejecting ruling of district court that Plyler justifies heightened scrutiny for cases involving denial of access to education).
The facts of the instant case bear some resemblance to those of Plyler. This case involves a similar "confluence of factors", in that the residency requirement threatens access to an unusually important interest (education) by a member of a disadvantaged group (the mentally retarded). However, in City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Ctr., 473 U.S. 432, 442, 87 L. Ed. 2d 313, 105 S. Ct. 3249 (1985), the Court refused to treat mental retardation as a quasi-suspect classification justifying intermediate scrutiny. Further, Plyler reaffirmed the Court's holding in San Antonio Indep. School Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 35, 36 L. Ed. 2d 16, 93 S. Ct. 1278 (1973), that burdens on education do not implicate a fundamental right.
Plyler, 457 U.S. at 221. Clearly, then, neither interest at stake in this case alone justifies the application of heightened scrutiny. Instead, because the Supreme Court has expressly disavowed the use of Plyler's "confluence of factors" approach to justify heightened scrutiny in future cases, the court must apply rational basis review to the classifications created by New York Education Law § 3202(4)(b). Therefore, the statute at issue in this case violates the Equal Protection Clause only if it is not rationally related to a legitimate government interest.
2. Rational Basis Analysis
Under the rational basis test the relevant inquiry is whether " any reasonably conceivable state of facts . . . could provide a rational basis for the classification." F.C.C. v. Beach Communications, Inc., U.S. , 113 S. Ct. 2096, 2101, 124 L. Ed. 2d 211 (1993) (emphasis added). Where rational basis is the standard of review, a statute will not be stricken merely because it does not in fact achieve its intended result. Instead, the statute survives if the legislature " could rationally have decided " that it would fulfill its purpose. Minnesota v. Clover Leaf Creamery Co., 449 U.S. 456, 466, 66 L. Ed. 2d 659, 101 S. Ct. 715, reh'g denied, 450 U.S. 1027, 68 L. Ed. 2d 222, 101 S. Ct. 1735 (1981) (emphasis in original). Thus a statute may satisfy the rational basis test even if in practice it results in some inequality. Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, 485, 25 L. Ed. 2d 491, 90 S. Ct. 1153, reh'g denied, 398 U.S. 914, 26 L. Ed. 2d 80, 90 S. Ct. 1684 (1970).
Under New York's Education Law children who, like Dell, live in free family homes or family homes at board are deemed residents of the school district in which the home is located only "when such family homes shall be the actual and only residence of such children." N.Y. Educ. Law § 3202(4)(b). The decision of the New York Court of Appeals in Catlin v. Sobol, 77 N.Y.2d at 558-62, 571 N.E.2d at 664, 569 N.Y.S.2d at 356, established the definitive meaning for "actual and only residence" as used in New York Education Law § 3202(4)(b). Travelers Ins. Co. v. 633 Third Assocs., 14 F.3d 114, 119 (2d Cir. 1994). Under that interpretation,
a school district is bound to furnish tuition-free education only for children whose parents or legal guardians reside within the district; that where the parents or guardians reside outside of the district the child presumably resides outside the district also and is not entitled to free education; and that this presumption may be overcome by showing that the parents or guardians have given up parental control and that the child's permanent domicile, i.e., the child's "actual and only residence" -- is within the district.