A Quick Summary of Plyler v. Doe (1982)

by JRO on November 15, 2013

  • SumoMe

In 1982 the Supreme Court case of Plyler v. Doe set a historic precedent for the treatment of children of illegal immigrants within the public school system. Prior to the 1982 ruling, certain school districts were denying public education to children of illegal immigrants, and in some cases even charging them a tuition to make up for lost tax dollars. The 1982 ruling involved the nullification of such a law, indicating that when states limit the rights of the people, specifically children, these limitations must be examined under intermediate scrutiny, the term used to determine whether or not a law is crucial to the interests of the state.

Background Information

The court case dates back to 1975, when the state of Texas passed the Alien Children Education (ACE) law, which withheld state funds for the education of the children of undocumented immigrants; simultaneously, the law also allowed for school districts within the state to deny access to education to these same students by permitting the school districts to deny enrollment.

In 1977 lawyers filed lawsuits on behalf of the children denied access to education under the basis that the 14th amendment, the equal protection clause of the constitution, was being violated by such a law. The case was filed in the District Court. In 1978 and 1979 similar court cases were filed across Texas. In 1980 the District Court found that the law was unconstitutional; in 1981 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals also found the law unconstitutional; and in 1982 the Supreme Court of the United States agreed to hear the case by a vote of 5-4.

The 14th Amendment

The case was heard by Justices Brennan, Marshall, Blackmunn, Powell, Stevens, Burger, White, Rehnquist, and O’Connor. With a vote of 5-4, with the latter 4 justices named dissenting, the Supreme Court ruled the Texas law was indeed unconstitutional and in violation of the 14th amendment of the United States Constitution. Since the 14th amendment states that “no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction equal protection of the laws,” the decision appeared easy to Justice Brennan, who delivered the opinion of the court. First, there is no question that “within its jurisdiction” means within a state’s borders, which the children clearly were. Second, Brennan argued that the intention of Texas’s ACE law was to create a caste-like system within the state, and the purpose of the 14th amendment is to protect against any caste-based or class-based legislation.

The Supreme Court’s Ruling

It was decided by the court that when a state limits the rights of the people, the law must undergo intermediate scrutiny, or be tested to determine whether or not it is a law critical to the needs of the state. In order to do so, intermediate scrutiny involves considering costs to the nation (it was decided that education is critical to the maintenance of democracy), and costs to the children (in which it was decided that children cannot be held responsible for their illegal status and refusing education to an individual takes an unknown toll on the individual denied).

The ruling applies only to the public school system involving grades K-12. Today, there are laws in place that deny secondary education to illegal immigrants, or deny them eligibility for scholarships and the like.


Along with Immigration Law, Miles Stafford writes on Criminal Defense, Business Law, Commercial Law, Intellectual Property and other associated areas.

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