The Conclusive Presumption Doctrine: Equal Process or Due Protection?

In Vlandis v. Kline and United States Department of Agriculture v. Murry, decided during its past term, the Supreme Court invoked the conclusive presumption doctrine to invalidate statutory provisions, that restricted access to certain state and federal government benefits. This term, in Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur, the Court used the same rationale to strike down school board rules requiring teachers to take maternity leaves without pay. The essence of the doctrine is as follows: When a statutory provision imposes a burden upon a class of individuals for a particular purpose and certain individuals within the burdened class are so situated that burdening them does not further that purpose, then the rigid statutory classification must be replaced, to the extent administratively feasible, by an individual factual determination that more accurately selects the individuals who are to bear the statutory burden. The legislature in such cases is said to have “conclusively presumed” that all members of the burdened class possess those characteristics that caused the burden to be imposed, and due process is found to require an individual opportunity to rebut this presumption. The relatively few cases in which the Court applied this doctrine before last term involved such burdens as deprivation of property through estate or income taxation, denial of the right to vote, removal of children from their unmarried father’s custody, and suspension of a driver’s license. This Note examines equal protection alternatives to the conclusive presumption doctrine that were apparently rejected by the Court; analyzes the doctrine itself in terms of constitutional language, judicial precedents, theoretical soundness, and practical workability; and concludes with a suggested equal protection standard that would serve the purposes of the doctrine while avoiding many of its difficulties.