Question: I would like to know if it is legal — constitutionally, federally or whatever — that schools discriminate against students based on their age. I am 20 years old and I fully support myself working at a part-time job, but because I am not 24, enlisted, married, an orphan or raising a child, I am forced to use my parents’ tax returns to determine my financial aid even though I am not claimed as a dependent on their tax returns.
— Eli C., Davis, Calif.
Answer: The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution says that a state cannot “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” That Equal Protection Clause also applies to all subdivisions of the state, including the UC Regents.
It’s one of the post-Civil War amendments designed by Congress to protect African-Americans in southern states from racial discrimination. Since the 1860s, the courts have since expanded it to prohibit many other types of discrimination.
Read on its face, the language of the Equal Protection Clause would indeed seem to require states to treat a 20-year-old no different from a 24-year-old. But it would also seem to ban laws “discriminating” against smokers or allowing people to bring service dogs (but not regular dogs) on airplanes — not to mention the 21-year-old drinking age.
The way the Supreme Court interprets and applies the Equal Protection Clause depends on the category or class of persons. When a law discriminates on the basis of a “suspect” class — like race — the court will almost always strike down the law as unconstitutional, unless it’s necessary to achieve a compelling state interest. Very few such laws would survive this kind of strict scrutiny. Race-based affirmative action is one of the race-discriminatory policies that have survived in the past, though the Supreme Court may reverse itself later this year. (Google “Fisher v. University of Texas” if you’re interested.)
Sex-based discrimination is also unconstitutional — usually. The courts will uphold sex-based laws if they are substantially related to furthering an important government interest — basically, if the government can think of a really good reason to discriminate on the basis of sex, the courts will uphold the law. Like with race, very few sex-based laws withstand such scrutiny. And again, affirmative action is one of them.
Other classes are not suspect; age is one of them. When the court deals with a non-suspect class — students, 20-year-olds, smokers, people with tattoos, the shoeless masses — it will uphold a law if it is rational. Unless a law is completely insane, the court will uphold it.
What’s an irrational, insane law?
“When Jupiter is at its xenith, all left-handed people must hop four times or else pay a $50 fine.”
“If the groundhog sees his shadow, all drivers of the Toyota Prius are admitted into UC San Diego.”
As for age: You have to be 18 to vote. You have to be 21 to drink. Are those completely insane laws? No. They might be imperfect laws. They might even be bad laws.
But they’re not insane, because they’re rationally related to a legitimate government interest. Adults are more responsible than children, and there’s a legitimate interest in making sure only responsible people vote and drink.
There’s a reason why the financial aid office considers you financially independent only if you’re 24 years old: Younger students are often — but not always — dependent on their parents, and the school has a legitimate interest in giving scarce aid money only to the most needy.
Is this a perfect policy? No. Does it account for circumstances like yours? No.
But it doesn’t need to. It just needs to be rational. And it is.
Question: Does our landlord need to give us a few days notice if he brings people over to look at our apartment, or can he just call last minute and say, “By the way, I’m showing the place in less than an hour?”
— Michelle O., Sacramento, Calif.
The landlord has to give you “reasonable” notice — in writing — before entering your apartment to show it to a new tenant. The written notice must include the date, approximate time and purpose of the entry. The courts will presume 24 hours reasonable notice, unless there’s evidence to the contrary. He should enter only during normal business hours — no 4 a.m. surprise visits.
A landlord cannot abuse his right of access or use it to harass or repeatedly disturb the tenants, per California Civil Code Section 1954(c). He can’t keep intentionally violating these access rules to influence you to move out, either. If you can show a court that he’s repeatedly entering your apartment to harass you or influence you to move out, you can sue the landlord in small-claims court for $2,000 for each violation, per Civil Code Section 1940.2(b).
Daniel is a Sacramento attorney, former Davis City Council candidate and graduate of UC Davis School of Law. He’ll answer questions sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeted to @governorwatts. XXX