August 2016 Bar Bulletin
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August 2016 Bar Bulletin

Loving v. Virginia and Its Diverse Legal Impact

By Yvonne W. Mmata


Loving v. Virginia1 has been cited 15,610 times since 1967.2 This article briefly discusses Loving and two very different cases in which it was cited to illustrate the breadth of its impact beyond the subject of marriage.

Loving v. Virginia involved the marriage of an interracial couple in Virginia, where a state law prohibited interracial marriages. Mildred Jeter, a “Negro” woman, and Richard Loving, a “white” man, were indicted by a grand jury and charged with violating Virginia’s ban on interracial marriages.

“On January 6, 1959 the Lovings pleaded guilty to the charge and were sentenced to one year in jail; however, the trial judge suspended the sentence for a period of 25 years on the condition that the Lovings leave the state.”3 The trial court opinion stated, in part: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”4

The Lovings moved to the District of Columbia, but fought back by appealing the decision on Fourteenth Amendment grounds. After losing on appeal in state court, the Lovings brought their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the majority held, “At the very least, the Equal Protection Clause demands that racial classifications, especially in criminal cases, be subjected to the ‘most rigid scrutiny.’”5

Addressing the facts of the case, the Supreme Court added, “Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man’ fundamental to our very existence and survival. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.”6

One case that Loving v. Virginia had an impact on was Washington v. Harper.7 Walter Harper had been sentenced to prison in 1976 for robbery. From 1976 to 1980 he was incarcerated at the Washington State Penitentiary, where he was given antipsychotic drugs that are mainly used for treating people who have mental disorders such as schizophrenia.

The desired result was that the medication would help patients organize their thought processes and also gain back a rational state of mind. Just like the Lovings, in order for Harper to be free from incarceration, he had to do something in return: “Respondent was paroled in 1980 on the condition that he participated in psychiatric treatment.”8

A year later, the state revoked his parole after he assaulted two nurses. He was then sent to the Special Offender Center (“SOC”) where he was diagnosed with serious mental disorders and received psychiatric treatment. At first Harper gave consent to the treatment, including the antipsychotic medication, but in 1982 he decided that he didn’t want to take the medication anymore. Following a hearing, a committee determined that Harper “was a danger to others as a result of a medical disease or disorder and upheld the involuntary administration of antipsychotic drugs.”9

After about a year, Harper was transferred to the Washington State Reformatory and he stopped taking antipsychotic medications. His condition deteriorated and after only a month he was back at the SOC. At the SOC, “Respondent was the subject of another committee hearing in accordance with policy 600.30, and the committee again approved medication against his will.”10

In 1985, Harper filed suit in state court against individual defendants and the State alleging that they failed to provide a judicial hearing before giving him the antipsychotic medication and violated the Due Process, Equal Protection and Free Speech clauses of the U.S. and Washington constitutions, as well as state tort law.

In March 1987, after a bench trial, the trial court held that although Harper had a “liberty interest in not being subjected” to the antipsychotic medication that he was involuntary given, the procedures contained in the applicable policy met due process requirements. The Washington Supreme Court reversed and remanded.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and applied a “reasonableness” standard of review, noting that it had previously applied the reasonableness standard to inmates’ right to marry, “a right protected by the due process clause,” citing Loving v. Virginia.11 The Court found that the regulation regarding the involuntary administration of drugs to inmates was permissible, and reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.12

Another case that Loving v. Virginia had an impact on was Adarand Constructors v. Pena.13 In 1989, Mount Gravel & Construction Co. was awarded the prime contract for a highway and obtained bids from subcontractors for the guardrail portion of the contract. Adarand was the low bidder for the guardrail work, but the prime contractor selected Gonzales Construction Co. because the prime contract’s terms said Mountain Gravel would receive “additional compensation” if the subcontractors confirmed that they were small businesses controlled by “socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.” Gonzales, unlike Adarand, had the certification. The chief estimator wrote a statement that Mount Gravel would have accepted Adarand’s bid if it hadn’t been for the additional pay it received by hiring Gonzales.

Adarand filed suit, alleging that the federal government’s practice of giving general contractors who are working on government projects a financial incentive “[t]o hire subcontractors that are controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals” violated the Equal Protection component of the Fifth Amendment Due Process clause.14 Like the Loving case, the issues in Adarand involved race, as Adarand focused in particular on “the government’s use of race-based presumptions in identifying such individuals.”15

The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the government. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld summary judgment, applying “‘a lenient standard, resembling intermediate scrutiny, in assessing’ the constitutionality of federal race-based action.”16 The Supreme Court analyzed numerous prior decisions relating to race and cited Loving (among others) for the proposition that “racial disputes … be subject to the most rigid scrutiny,” adopting a strict scrutiny analysis, i.e., government racial classifications must serve a compelling governmental interest and be narrowly tailored to further that interest.17 The Supreme Court reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.18

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