Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co.
488 U.S. 469 (1989)

  • The City of Richmond, VA established a business plan that required contractors who worked on construction projects for the city to subcontract 30% of the work to minority-owned businesses. (aka Minority Business Enterprises, aka MBEs).
    • Richmond stated that the plan was remedial in nature and enacted “for the purpose of promoting wider participation by minorities in the construction of public projects.”
      • At the time, 50% of Richmond’s citizens were black, but only 0.67% of the construction projects went to MBEs.
      • Interestingly, most of the leaders of Richmond’s city government were black.
  • Croson failed to win a contract and sued, claiming that the business plan was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
    • Croson argued that equal means equal, and any policy that favors one race over another in inherently unequal, even if it favors the minority.
  • The US Supreme Court found that the business plan was unconstitutional and a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.
    • The US Supreme Court found that since this policy involved a suspect classification, the level of review should be strict scrutiny.
      • Strict scrutiny is the level of review used when a fundamental constitutional right is infringed, or when the government action involves the use of a suspect classification such as race that may render it void under the Equal Protection Clause.
        • In order to pass a strict scrutiny review, a law must:
          • Be justified by a compelling governmental interest.
          • Be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.
          • Use least restrictive means to achieve that interest.
    • The Court found that there was no compelling governmental interest because Richmond failed to identify the need for remedial action.
      • The Court found that “generalized assertions” of past racial discrimination could not justify “rigid” racial quotas for the awarding of public contracts.
        • Plus, the 30% number seemed pretty arbitrary.
    • The Court found that the business plan was not narrowly tailored because it gave minorities who just moved to Richmond (who had never been discriminated against) the same bonus as long-time residents who could (theoretically) show that they had been the victims of past discrimination.
    • The Court found that the business plan did not use the least restrictive means because Richmond failed to make a showing that other non-discriminatory means would be insufficient.
  • This case is notable because it established that strict scrutiny is the appropriate level of judicial review for evaluating government affirmative-action programs.
    • Until this case there was debate on whether intermediate scrutiny or even rational basis was the appropriate standard.