United States v. Virginia (1996) is a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case concerning the ability of state officials to maintain public single-sex institutions of higher education. In VMI, the Court held that, as a matter of constitutional law, the Virginia Military Institute could not exclude women from enrolling as students. Insofar as the Court’s judgment in VMI took the significant step of outlawing single-sex education at public colleges and universities, this entry examines its background, judicial analyses, and implications.
The VMI was founded in 1839 as a statesupported military school. Since that time, the institute has employed a rigorous curriculum, also referred to as the “adversative method,” which is designed to produce citizen-soldiers who become leaders in both military and civilian life. While VMI alumni include many prominent military generals, political leaders, and business executives, the institute did not admit women as students during its first 150 years of operation.
Facts of the Case
The vast majority of constitutional challenges involve private parties suing the government. Yet, VMI was an action by the federal government against the government of the Commonwealth of Virginia. In 1990, the Justice Department, responding to a complaint from a female high school student, sued Virginia, contending that having an all-male institution of higher education violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. After a federal trial court in Virginia decided that the single-sex admissions policy did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, the Fourth Circuit disagreed. The Fourth Circuit vacated the trial court’s original order on the ground that commonwealth officials had not advanced a justification showing why they should offer a program for men and not for women. However, the Fourth Circuit did not order the admission of women. Rather, the court presented officials in Virginia with a choice: They could either admit women or establish a parallel program that was all female.
Virginia chose to establish a parallel program, the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership, at an all-female private institution, Mary Baldwin College. Although there were significant differences in the academic quality of the two programs, the federal trial court approved Virginia’s alternative program. On appeal, a sharply divided Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
By a vote of seven to one, in an opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg, with Justice Thomas not participating, the Supreme Court reversed in striking down the Fourth Circuit’s second order while reinstating its initial determination. According to the Court, in equal protection cases involving gender, state governments bear the burden of establishing “exceedingly persuasive” justifications for any gender classification. The Court explained that gender classifications are upheld only if classifications are substantially related to important governmental interests.
The Supreme Court then proceeded to reject each of the interests proffered by Virginia for wishing to continue to operate the VMI as an all-male institution. First, the Court found that prohibiting women from enrolling at the institute did not contribute to a diversity of educational opportunities in Virginia. Second, the Court rejected the idea that admitting women would require substantial changes to the institute’s curriculum. In this regard, the Court noted that because women had successfully integrated into the federal service academies, the refusal to admit females as students was unconstitutional.
Having ruled that VMI’s policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court turned to address the proper remedy. Even though Virginia had implemented an all-female parallel program at another institution, the Court rejected the alternative program, because the educational opportunities that it afforded were not equal in prestige to those offered at the institute.
Chief Justice Rehnquist concurred in the judgment of the Court, but wrote separately to emphasize his disagreement with the standard that the Supreme Court employed. The Chief Justice posited that the Court was adding an additional requirement, namely a showing of an “exceedingly persuasive justification,” to the accepted standard of a substantial relationship to an important governmental interest. To this end, he feared that adding the exceedingly persuasive justification requirement would be less precise and lead to more inconsistency.
Justice Scalia dissented. In his view, the Constitution neither compels nor prohibits singlesex education. He was of the view that because the Constitution is silent on the issue, he would have deferred to Virginia’s judgment that single-sex education was necessary. Moreover, Justice Scalia believed that under the Court’s pre-VMI precedents, the institute would have satisfied the constitutional standard.
Impact of the Ruling
While the result had a significant impact for the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel, a similar military school in South Carolina, VMI has had little immediate practical effect on higher education, because every other public institution of higher education was already coeducational. Moreover, private colleges and universities are not subject to the Constitution’s command, and singlesex education explicitly is allowed under Title IX. Nevertheless, the VMI Court’s broad rejection of any policy that excludes one gender remains a cornerstone of higher education law. In sum, then, public institutions must open all programs to all persons, regardless of gender. The first female cadets were admitted to VMI in 1997.
See also equal protection analysis; Single-Sex Colleges
Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, 458 U.S. 718 (1982).
Russo, C. J., & Mawdsley, R. D. (1997). VMI and singlesex public schools: The end of an era? Education Law Reporter, 114, 999–1010.
Wood, R. C., & Cornelius, L. (1997). Public supported all-male military colleges: The Supreme Court rules in U.S. v. Commonwealth of Virginia. Education Law Reporter, 118, 819–833.
United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996).