Categorization and differential treatment of persons by the government according to generally irrelevant characteristics that raise the suspicion of invidious discrimination.
The Supreme Court generally presumes that legal distinctions among persons regulated by public action are rational means to achieve legitimate ends. To do otherwise would require it to second-guess the complex political decisions of the democratically elected branches. Where distinctions, however, are based on patently irrelevant characteristics that have been used historically as the bases for invidious discrimination, the Supreme Court examines the law with a more exacting standard strict scrutiny. A suspect classification will not be upheld unless it serves a compelling public end through narrowly tailored means.
Although race is the quintessential suspect classification, that designation has been extended to national origin and alienage. Attempts to extend this highest level of judicial scrutiny to classifications based upon gender, illegitimacy, age, disability, sexual orientation, and economic class foundered with the demise of the liberal Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren. More solicitous treatment of these latter categories, however, especially gender and illegitimacy, indicates either the emergence of intermediate, quasi-suspect classifications or the reformulation of equal protection standards of review from a dichotomous to a continuous scale. Meanwhile affirmative action cases have held that benign as well as invidious racial classifications will be treated as suspect.
Adarand Constructors v. Peña
Equal protection clause
Frontiero v. Richardson
Korematsu v. United States
Race and discrimination
Regents of the University of California v. Bakke
San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez