What is Rational Basis?

Jim B.
Jim B.
Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Rational basis is the standard of scrutiny used by judges in the United States to determine whether a legislature has the proper basis for enacting a particular law. This type of scrutiny usually comes up in connection with cases dealing with a plaintiff who claims that his or her due process or equal protection rights have been violated. As rational basis is the lowest level of scrutiny used by judges, cases involving it are usually decided on behalf of the legislature. Rulings in the United States have established that the legislature need not even have to articulate how this standard of review applies to its case for it to be used in the judgment. Legitimate discrimination cases cause the test to be applied differently, often in favor of the plaintiff.

Application of the rational basis test can occur when an individual or group claims that constitutional rights have been denied. Claims are generally in regard to denied due process, which is the right to be protected by the law. Another common claim is a plaintiff being denied equal protection rights due to discrimination. Regardless of the type of claim, the plaintiffs own the burden of proving that the law or policy in question is discriminatory. Judges will then use rational basis to determine if the enactment of the law was rational or arbitrary.

In cases involving the rational basis standard, the state or legislature simply has to show that upholding the law provides some legitimate benefit on its behalf. This can make these cases extremely difficult for the plaintiff to win once this test is applied. The plaintiff must not only prove that the law in question singles he or she out or discriminates against them, but also that the law does so in an arbitrary fashion.

The legislature also benefits from the rational basis test because it does not require it to give a reason for enacting the law. U.S. Supreme Court rulings have stipulated that the court in question may find a rational reason for a law even if the state enacting it doesn't give its own reasons for applying the law in the particular case. This stipulation further removes the burden from the legislature in these cases.

In certain instances, cases involving a person or group being denied his or her constitutional rights can favor the plaintiff even if a rational basis review is applied. These cases usually involve racial, religious, or other arbitrary types of discrimination that don't serve any rational benefit to the state. The rational basis test, which may favor the plaintiffs in cases like this, is described at that point as having "bite."

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