The Rehnquist Court (1986–2005)
How did the Court rule on male-only military educational institutions?
The Court struck down a military university’s male-only admissions policy as violative of the Equal Protection Clause in United States v. Virginia (1996). The case began when a female high school student sought admission to Virginia Military Institute (VMI). VMI denied her admission, prompting the United States to file a lawsuit against the university.
A federal district court rejected the lawsuit, finding that there were substantial educational benefits to single-sex education. However, a federal appeals court reversed. The state then proposed a remedy—the creation of a separate military school for women called the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership at Mary Baldwin. The state argued that it did not violate the Equal Protection Clause if it afforded a similar educational benefit for women. The state also argued that men and women learned military training differently.
The U.S. Supreme Court sided with the United States and against the state of Virginia by a vote of 7–1. (Justice Clarence Thomas did not participate in the case because his son was a student at VMI at the time.) Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the State of Virginia failed to advance an “exceedingly persuasive justification” to justify its gender-based classification under Equal Protection jurisprudence. Ginsburg also questioned Virginia’s proposed remedy of creating a separate school for women. First, she noted that the women’s school could not hope to be equal to VMI: “In myriad respects other than military training, VWIL does not qualify as VMI’s equal. VWIL’s student body, faculty, course offerings, and facilities hardly match VMI’s. Nor can the VWIL graduate anticipate the benefits associated with VMI’s 157-year history, the school’s prestige, and its influential alumni network.”
She compared Virginia’s proposed solution to the state of Texas’s similar response more than 50 years earlier when confronted with the application of an African American to one of its law schools. In Sweatt v. Painter (1950), the Court rejected the state’s proposal to create a law school for African American students, pointing out that the proposal would fail to achieve any semblance of substantial equality. “In line with Sweatt, we rule here that Virginia has not shown substantial equality in the separate educational opportunities the Commonwealth supports at VWIL and VMI,” Ginsburg wrote.