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Discretion with intent to discriminate in DC? (Washington v. Davis)


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Washington, D.C., administered a written exam to applicants to the police department. The test, though administered uniformly to all applicants, disqualified four times as many black candidates as white candidates. As a result, the police department was 80 percent white in a city that was 70 percent black.

Alfred E. Davis, George Harley, and John D. Sellers, black candidates rejected on the basis of the test, filed suit against Walter E. Washington – the mayor-commissioner of the District of Columbia and the final D.C. mayor appointed by the President of the United States – “on behalf of all blacks who have unsuccessfully sought appointment to the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department since 1968.” They argued that the test was racially discriminatory in violation of the Equal Protection Clause and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

In Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229 (1976), the United States Supreme Court considered whether a practice with a discriminatory effect must have been motivated by invidious discrimination to violate the Constitution.

A majority of the Court held that an otherwise-neutral law or regulation does not violate the Equal Protection Clause due to its discriminatory impact alone. Instead, a plaintiff must also show that the law was motivated by invidious discrimination. Because the respondents could offer no proof of discriminatory intent, they had no constitutional or statutory basis for relief.

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