United States v. Virginia, Virginia v. United States
Decided June 26, 1996, 518 U.S. 515

The state operated Virginia Military Institute's categorical exclusion of women denies equal protection to women.



A. Issues Discussed: Equal protection, gender discrimination

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does the Constitution's equal protection guarantee preclude Virginia from reserving exclusively to men the unique educational opportunities the Virginia Military Institute affords, and if so, is the creation of a women's-only academy sufficient to remedy the Constitutional violation?

A. Background:

Virginia Military Institute (VMI) is the sole single-sex school among Virginia's public institutions of higher learning. VMI's distinctive mission is to produce 'citizen-soldiers,' men prepared for leadership in civilian life and in military service. Using an 'adversative method' of training not available elsewhere in Virginia, VMI endeavors to instill physical and mental discipline in its cadets and impart to them a strong moral code. Reflecting the high value alumni place on their VMI training, VMI has the largest per-student endowment of all undergraduate institutions in the Nation.

The United States sued Virginia and VMI, alleging that VMI's exclusively male admission policy violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. The District Court ruled in VMI's favor. The Fourth Circuit reversed and ordered Virginia to remedy the constitutional violation. In response, Virginia proposed a parallel program for women: Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership (VWIL), located at Mary Baldwin College, a private liberal arts school for women.

The District Court found that Virginia's proposal satisfied the Constitution's equal protection requirement, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The appeals court deferentially reviewed Virginia's plan and determined that provision of single-gender educational options was a legitimate objective. Maintenance of single-sex programs, the court concluded, was essential to that objective. The court recognized, however, that its analysis risked bypassing equal protection scrutiny, so it fashioned an additional test, asking whether VMI and VWIL students would receive 'substantively comparable' benefits. Although the Court of Appeals acknowledged that the VWIL degree lacked the historical benefit and prestige of a VMI degree, the court nevertheless found the educational opportunities at the two schools sufficiently comparable."

On certiorari, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

B. Counsel of Record:


Opposing Side

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C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
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Opposing Side
Paul Bender argued the cause for the United States in both cases. With him on the briefs were Solicitor General Days, Assistant Attorney General Patrick, Cornelia T. L. Pillard, Jessica Dunsay Silver, and Thomas E. Chandler.

Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal in No. 94-1941 were filed for the State of Maryland et al. by J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General of Maryland, and Andrew H. Baida, Assistant Attorney General, and by the Attorneys General for their respective jurisdictions as follows: Margery S. Bronster of Hawaii, Scott Harshbarger of Massachusetts, Frankie Sue Del Papa of Nevada, C. Sebastian Aloot of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Theodore R. Kulongoski of Oregon; for the Employment Law Center et al. by Patricia A. Shiu and Judith Kurtz; and for the National Women's Law Center et al. by Robert N. Weiner, Marcia D. Greenberger, Sara L. Mandelbaum, Janet Gallagher, Mary Wyckoff, Steven R. Shapiro, and Susan Deller Ross.
Theodore B. Olson argued the cause and filed briefs for respondents in No. 94-1941 and petitioners in No. 94-2107. With him on the briefs were James S. Gilmore III, Attorney General of Virginia, William H. Hurd, Deputy Attorney General, Thomas G. Hungar, D. Jarrett Arp, Robert H. Patterson, Jr., Anne Marie Whittemore, William G. Broaddus, J. William Boland, Griffin B. Bell, and William A. Clineburg, Jr.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance in No. 94-1941 were filed for the State of South Carolina et al. by Charles Molony Condon, Attorney General, Treva Ashworth, Deputy Attorney General, Kenneth P. Woodington, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Reginald I. Lloyd, Assistant Attorney General, and M. Dawes Cooke, Jr.; and for Kenneth E. Clark et al. by James C. Roberts and George A. Somerville.


"Parties who seek to defend gender-based government action must demonstrate an 'exceedingly persuasive justification' for that action. Neither federal nor state government acts compatibly with equal protection when a law or official policy denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature-equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities. To meet the burden of justification, a State must show 'at least that the [challenged] classification serves 'important governmental objectives and that the discriminatory means employed' are 'substantially related to the achievement of those objectives'...

Virginia's categorical exclusion of women from the educational opportunities VMI provides denies equal protection to women...

The remedy proffered by Virginia-maintain VMI as a male-only college and create VWIL as a separate program for women-does not cure the constitutional violation. A remedial decree must closely fit the constitutional violation; it must be shaped to place persons unconstitutionally denied an opportunity or advantage in the position they would have occupied in the absence of discrimination. The constitutional violation in this case is the categorical exclusion of women, in disregard of their individual merit, from an extraordinary educational opportunity afforded men. Virginia chose to leave untouched VMI's exclusionary policy, and proposed for women only a separate program, different in kind from VMI and unequal in tangible and intangible facilities. VWIL affords women no opportunity to experience the rigorous military training for which VMI is famed...

The Fourth Circuit failed to inquire whether the proposed remedy placed women denied the VMI advantage in the position they would have occupied in the absence of discrimination, and considered instead whether the State could provide, with fidelity to equal protection, separate and unequal educational programs for men and women...

Women seeking and fit for a VMI-quality education cannot be offered anything less, under the State's obligation to afford them genuinely equal protection."

The United States Supreme Court reversed the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit judgment.

Justice Vote: 7 Pro vs. 1 Con

  • Ginsburg, R. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Breyer, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)


The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged reversal of the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit; the Supreme Court reversed in a 7-1 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.