California Landmark Cases on Equal Protection of the Law

The equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides: "No State shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." (U.S. Const., 14th Amend., 1.) The California Constitution expressly provides the same guarantee. (Cal. Const., art. I, 7, subd. (a).) In essence, equal protection of the law means that all persons who are similarly situated with respect to a law should be treated alike under the law. (Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc. (1985) 473 U.S. 432, 439 87 L. Ed. 2d 313, 105 S. Ct. 3249; Arcadia Development Co. v. City of Morgan Hill (2011) 197 Cal.App.4th 1526, 1534 129 Cal. Rptr. 3d 369.) "Of course, most laws differentiate in some fashion between classes of persons. The Equal Protection Clause does not forbid classifications. It simply keeps governmental decisionmakers from treating differently persons who are in all relevant respects alike. " (Nordlinger v. Hahn (1992) 505 U.S. 1, 10 120 L. Ed. 2d 1, 112 S. Ct. 2326.) "The general rule is that legislation is presumed to be valid and will be sustained if the classification drawn by the statute is rationally related to a legitimate state interest. When social or economic legislation is at issue, the Equal Protection Clause allows the States wide latitude, , and the Constitution presumes that even improvident decisions will eventually be rectified by the democratic processes." (Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc., supra, 473 U.S. at p. 440; accord, FCC v. Beach Communications, Inc. (1993) 508 U.S. 307, 313-314 124 L. Ed. 2d 211, 113 S. Ct. 2096.) As Justice Robert Jackson explained many years ago: "Cities, states and the Federal Government must exercise their powers so as not to discriminate between their inhabitants except upon some reasonable differentiation fairly related to the object of regulation. This equality is not merely abstract justice. The framers of the Constitution knew, and we should not forget today, that there is no more effective practical guaranty against arbitrary and unreasonable government than to require that the principles of law which officials would impose upon a minority must be imposed generally. Conversely, nothing opens the door to arbitrary action so effectively as to allow those officials to pick and choose only a few to whom they will apply legislation and thus to escape the political retribution that might be visited upon them if larger numbers were affected. Courts can take no better measure to assure that laws will be just than to require that laws be equal in operation." (Railway Express v. New York (1949) 336 U.S. 106, 112-113 93 L. Ed. 533, 69 S. Ct. 463, italics added (conc. opn. of Jackson, J.), cited with approval in Hays v. Wood (1979) 25 Cal.3d 772, 786-787 160 Cal. Rptr. 102, 603 P.2d 19.) The same rational basis standard is applied for purposes of the equal protection provision of the California Constitution. (Kasler v. Lockyer (2000) 23 Cal.4th 472, 481-482 97 Cal. Rptr. 2d 334, 2 P.3d 581; County of L. A. v. Southern Cal. Tel. Co., supra, 32 Cal.2d at pp. 389-390.) This deferential standard "'invests legislation involving such differentiated treatment with a presumption of constitutionality and "requires merely that distinctions drawn by a challenged statute bear some rational relationship to a conceivable legitimate state purpose." '" (Warden v. State Bar (1999) 21 Cal.4th 628, 641 88 Cal. Rptr. 2d 283, 982 P.2d 154.) "Past decisions also establish that, under the rational relationship test, the state may recognize that different categories or classes of persons within a larger classification may pose varying degrees of risk of harm, and properly may limit a regulation to those classes of persons as to whom the need for regulation is thought to be more crucial or imperative." (Id. at p. 644, citing Williamson v. Lee Optical Co. (1955) 348 U.S. 483, 489 99 L. Ed. 563, 75 S. Ct. 461 "Evils in the same field may be of different dimensions and proportions, requiring different remedies. Or so the legislature may think. Or the reform may take one step at a time, addressing itself to the phase of the problem which seems most acute to the legislative mind.".) A key principle that must be applied in the present analysis is that "an administrative order, legislative in character, is subject to the same tests as to validity as an act of the Legislature. " (Knudsen Creamery Co. v. Brock (1951) 37 Cal.2d 485, 494 234 P.2d 26 (Knudsen Creamery Co.).) As the majority opinion in Hess correctly observed, the action of the Board in approving a final CBA submitted by the mediator is essentially legislative in character: "There can be no doubt that the compulsory interest arbitration scheme provides for quasi-legislative action. Although the statutes refer to the end result as a 'collective bargaining agreement,' there is no agreement. In this case Hess not only did not agree to be bound by the terms of employment imposed by the mediator, it did not agree to submit to interest arbitration at all. The terms of the 'agreement' determined by the arbitrator were imposed upon Hess by force of law. The statutory scheme is not quasi-judicial. An administrative action is quasi-judicial, or quasi-adjudicative, when it consists of applying existing rules to existing facts. The creation of new rules for future application, such as is done here, is quasi-legislative in character. This is so even though the action is, as here, taken in an individual case. " (Hess, supra, 140 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1597-1598.) (23) Accordingly, when under the MMC statute the Board approves or adopts a mediator's report (such as the one in this case regarding Gerawan) and thereby establishes an enforceable CBA as to a particular employer and union, the resulting CBA is legislative or regulatory in character and is "subject to the same tests as to validity as an act of the Legislature" (Knudsen Creamery Co., supra, at p. 494), including the test of constitutionality under the equal protection clause.