Washington v. Davis

Following is the case brief for Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229 (1976)

Case Summary of Washington v. Davis:

  • Four times as many African-Americans failed a District of Columbia Police Department officer-qualifying test compared to whites.
  • Two African-Americans who failed the test sued in federal court, claiming that the test violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
  • The District Court granted summary judgment for the Police Department.  The Court of Appeals reversed, granting summary judgment for the rejected applicants.
  • The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals.  It held that a law is unconstitutional if a discriminatory purpose is shown.  Discriminatory impact is not enough, by itself, to establish a constitutional violation.

Washington v. Davis Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Two African-Americans applied to become police officers in the District of Columbia Police Department.  They had to take a qualifying test, the so-called “Test 21,” which they failed, thereby making them ineligible to become police officers.  It was discovered that four times as many African-Americans failed Test 21 than whites.

The two rejected applicants sued in Federal District Court, claiming that the Police Department’s recruiting procedures discriminated on the basis of race.  They claimed that Test 21 excluded a disproportionately high number of African-American applicants, and that the test bore no relationship to actual job performance.  Accordingly, they assert that the test violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Procedural History:

  • The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the Police Department.
  • The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, granting summary judgment in favor of the rejected applicants. It held that discriminatory intent was not relevant, and that disproportionate impact established a constitutional violation.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Is disproportionate impact on one particular race enough to show a violation of the ConstitutionNo.


The decision of the D.C. Circuit is reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

A law must have a discriminatory purpose against a certain protected group to establish a violation of the Constitution.


As an initial matter, the Court of Appeals erred in applying standards of Title VII cases to resolve a constitutional issue.  Also, even though there is an equal protection component to the Fifth Amendment, a racially disproportionate impact resulting from a law, by itself, does not establish that the law is unconstitutional.  The law, using Test 21 in this case, is neutral on its face, and therefore does not run afoul of the Constitution.

Moreover, the statutory standards under Title VII were satisfied in this case.  Test 21 was directly related to the requirements of the police training program.  The question of whether the test was related to actual job performance is not relevant to the inquiry.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Stevens):

While purposeful discrimination is a common thread in determining whether a law deserves strict scrutiny, the distinction between discriminatory purpose and discriminatory effect is not as clear as one might hope.  Frequently, the best evidence of intent is what actually happened, rather than the subjective intent of the actor.

While a constitutional issue does not come about every time there is a discriminatory impact, sometimes the impact is so disproportionate that phrasing the issue in terms of purpose or effect is of no moment.  The reason the Court’s decision is correct is because (i) Test 21 serves the neutral purpose of requiring everyone to meet a minimum literacy standard, and (ii) the test is used uniformly throughout the federal service.

Dissenting Opinion (Brennan):

First, the Court should not have decided any statutory questions because those are not presented in this case.  Second, the Court’s opinion is confused as to what statutory standard renders Test 21 valid.  Finally, Test 21 actually does not satisfy the Title VII standards, and therefore the Court’s decision may weaken statutory safeguards against discrimination in employment.


Washington v. Davis is significant because it holds that discriminatory purpose is required to establish a constitutional violation.  Discriminatory impact is not enough if the law or policy is otherwise race neutral.

Student Resources:

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