In the U.S., a suspect class is a legal term referring to a group that has suffered a history of discrimination. To qualify as a suspect class, a group must meet certain factors established by the U.S. Supreme Court. Groups that do not meet all the factors fall into a quasi-suspect category. Courts use these classifications to decide what level of review to give governmental action that may violate the constitutional rights of individuals belonging to a particular class. The levels of review consist of strict scrutiny, intermediate scrutiny, and rational basis.
A group that meets the following criteria is a suspect class. One, a group must have suffered a history of discrimination. Two, the group must lack political power. Three, the group must have an immutable trait such as skin color. Four, the group must be a separate and distinct minority.[
Some groups may not satisfy all the factors. In these instances, the courts may consider the group a quasi-suspect class. For example, the Supreme Court classified women as a quasi-suspect class because they have suffered a history of discrimination, lacked political power, and their gender is an immutable trait. Laws that classify people based on gender, legitimacy, disability, and sexual orientation have fallen into the quasi-suspect category.
The classifications determine what level of review courts are required to use when deciding whether governmental action violates the constitutional rights of individuals in a particular class. For a suspect class, the court uses strict scrutiny, which is the toughest level of review. This test requires the government to prove that its law or action is necessary to achieve a compelling government interest. Further, there must be no other means for the government to achieve its objective. Most governmental actions cannot survive this test; if so, a court would rule that that the government is violating the U.S. Constitution. Race, religion, and national origin usually trigger strict scrutiny.
For a quasi-suspect class, courts apply intermediate scrutiny. This level of review requires the government to prove that its action is substantially related to achieving an important government interest. In one case, a state law allowed a husband to dispose of property he jointly owned with his wife without having to obtain her consent. The state could not prove that its law was substantially related to achieving an important government interest. As a result, the Supreme Court ruled that the state law was in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Courts apply a rational basis test when the other levels of review are inappropriate to a situation. Under this test, there is no constitutional violation as long as the government action has a rational relationship to achieving any legitimate government interest. This is a difficult test to fail. Unlike strict scrutiny and intermediate scrutiny, this test places the burden of proof on the person challenging the government’s action. This means that the challenger must convince a court that the government is violating the Constitution in implementing an apparently reasonable law or regulation.