When the Supreme Court decided Washington v. Davis on June 7, 1976, it began a new era in civil rights law. Rejecting the contention that state action is unconstitutional solely because it operates to injure more blacks than whites, the Court held that proof of discriminatory purpose is necessary to establish a claim of racial discrimination under the equal protection clause. In two cases decided the following term—Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp. and Castaneda v. Partida—the Court reaffirmed its commitment to the discriminatory purpose requirement, but was badly divided on how to apply the requirement in different contexts. Only five members of the Court joined Justice Powell's opinion applying the new standard in Arlington Heights; Justice White, the author of Davis, dissented. The division within the Court was even more dramatic in Castaneda, in which the Court for the first time found the necessary discriminatory purpose, but only by a five-to-four vote with three separate dissenting opinions, including one by Justice Powell. Only Justice Blackmun joined the Court's opinion in all three cases.
This article reviews the history of the purpose-effect controversy in the Supreme Court opinions and lower court decisions that preceded Washington v. Davis and then analyzes the three recent Supreme Court decisions to see how the discriminatory purpose requirement has been applied and to identify the unresolved issues in the application of the requirement to future equal protection cases. The introduction traces the background of the purpose-effect problem and the significance of its resolution in Davis. The facts and holding of Davis are then considered, followed by a review of the relevant precedents, including those relied on or disapproved of in Davis. The second half of the article is devoted to a detailed analysis of the opinions in Davis, Arlington Heights, and Castaneda, and examines the legal standard adopted, the application of that standard, and the major issues left unresolved by the Court.