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Massachusetts Board of Retirement v. Murgia/Opinion of the Court

< Massachusetts Board of Retirement v. Murgia
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Per Curiam Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion


This case presents the question whether the provision of Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. c. 32, § 26 (3) (a) (1966), that a uniformed state police officer "shall be retired...upon his attaining age fifty," denies appellee police officer equal protection of the laws in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.[1]

Appellee Robert Murgia was an officer in the Uniformed Branch of the Massachusetts State Police. The Massachusetts Board of Retirement retired him upon his 50th birthday. Appellee brought this civil action in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, alleging that the operation of § 26 (3) (a) denied him equal protection of the laws and requesting the convening of a three-judge court under 28 U.S.C. §§ 2281, 2284.[2] The District Judge dismissed appellee's complaint on the ground that the complaint did not allege a substantial constitutional question. 345 F. Supp. 1140 (1972). On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in an unreported memorandum, set aside the District Court judgment and remanded the case with direction to convene a three-judge court. Upon a record consisting of depositions, affidavits, and other documentary material submitted by the parties, the three-judge court filed an opinion that declared § 26 (3) (a) unconstitutional on the ground that "a classification based on age 50 alone lacks a rational basis in furthering any substantial state interest," and enjoined enforcement of the statute. 376 F. Supp. 753, 754 (1974). We noted probable jurisdiction, 421 U.S. 974 (1975), and now reverse.

The primary function of the Uniformed Branch of the Massachusetts State Police is to protect persons and property and maintain law and order. Specifically, uniformed officers participate in controlling prison and civil disorders, respond to emergencies and natural disasters, patrol highways in marked cruisers, investigate crime, apprehend criminal suspects, and provide backup support for local law enforcement personnel. As the District Court observed, "service in this branch is, or can be, arduous." 376 F. Supp., at 754. "[H]igh versatility is required, with few, if any, backwaters available for the partially superannuated." Ibid. Thus, "even [appellee's] experts concede that there is a general relationship between advancing age and decreasing physical ability to respond to the demands of the job." Id., at 755.

These considerations prompt the requirement that uniformed state officers pass a comprehensive physical examination biennially until age 40. After that, until mandatory retirement at age 50, uniformed officers must pass annually a more rigorous examination, including an electrocardiogram and tests for gastro-intestinal bleeding. Appellee Murgia had passed such an examination four months before he was retired, and there is no dispute that, when he retired, his excellent physical and mental health still rendered him capable of performing the duties of a uniformed officer.

The record includes the testimony of three physicians: that of the State Police Surgeon, who testified to the physiological and psychological demands involved in the performance of uniformed police functions; that of an associate professor of medicine, who testified generally to the relationship between aging and the ability to perform under stress; and that of a surgeon, who also testified to aging and the ability safely to perform police functions. The testimony clearly established that the risk of physical failure, particularly in the cardiovascular system, increases with age, and that the number of individuals in a given age group incapable of performing stress functions increases with the age of the group. App. 77-78, 174-176. The testimony also recognized that particular individuals over 50 could be capable of safely performing the functions of uniformed officers. The associate professor of medicine, who was a witness for the appellee, further testified that evaluating the risk of cardiovascular failure in a given individual would require a number of detailed studies. Id., at 77-78.

In assessing appellee's equal protection claim, the District Court found it unnecessary to apply a strict-scrutiny test, see Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S. 618 (1969), for it determined that the age classification established by the Massachusetts statutory scheme could not in any event withstand a test of rationality, see Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471 (1970). Since there had been no showing that reaching age 50 forecasts even "imminent change" in an officer's physical condition, the District Court held that compulsory retirement at age 50 was irrational under a scheme that assessed the capabilities of officers individually by means of comprehensive annual physical examinations. We agree that rationality is the proper standard by which to test whether compulsory retirement at age 50 violates equal protection. We disagree, however, with the District Court's determination that the age 50 classification is not rationally related to furthering a legitimate state interest.


We need state only briefly our reasons for agreeing that strict scrutiny is not the proper test for determining whether the mandatory retirement provision denies appellee equal protection. San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 16 (1973), reaffirmed that equal protection analysis requires strict scrutiny of a legislative classification only when the classification impermissibly interferes with the exercise of a fundamental right[3] or operates to the peculiar disadvantage of a suspect class.[4] Mandatory retirement at age 50 under the Massachusetts statute involves neither situation.

This Court's decisions give no support to the proposition that a right of governmental employment per se is fundamental. See San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, supra; Lindsey v. Normet, 405 U.S. 56, 73 (1972); Dandridge v. Williams, supra, at 485. Accordingly, we have expressly stated that a standard less than strict scrutiny "has consistently been applied to state legislation restricting the availability of employment opportunities." Ibid.

Nor does the class of uniformed state police officers over 50 constitute a suspect class for purposes of equal protection analysis. Rodriguez, supra, at 28, observed that a suspect class is one "saddled with such disabilities, or subjected to such a history of purposeful unequal treatment, or relegated to such a position of political powerlessness as to command extraordinary protection from the majoritarian political process." While the treatment of the aged in this Nation has not been wholly free of discrimination, such persons, unlike, say, those who have been discriminated against on the basis of race or national origin, have not experienced a "history of purposeful unequal treatment" or been subjected to unique disabilities on the basis of stereotyped characteristics not truly indicative of their abilities. The class subject to the compulsory retirement feature of the Massachusetts statute consists of uniformed state police officers over the age of 50. It cannot be said to discriminate only against the elderly. Rather, it draws the line at a certain age in middle life. But even old age does not define a "discrete and insular" group, United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144, 152-153, n. 4 (1938), in need of "extraordinary protection from the majoritarian political process." Instead, it marks a stage that each of us will reach if we live out our normal span. Even if the statute could be said to impose a penalty upon a class defined as the aged, it would not impose a distinction sufficiently akin to those classifications that we have found suspect to call for strict judicial scrutiny.

Under the circumstances, it is unnecessary to subject the State's resolution of competing interests in this case to the degree of critical examination that our cases under the Equal Protection Clause recently have characterized as "strict judicial scrutiny."


We turn then to examine this state classification under the rational-basis standard. This inquiry employs a relatively relaxed standard reflecting the Court's awareness that the drawing of lines that create distinctions is peculiarly a legislative task and an unavoidable one. Perfection in making the necessary classifications is neither possible nor necessary. Dandridge v. Williams, supra, at 485. Such action by a legislature is presumed to be valid.[5]

In this case, the Massachusetts statute clearly meets the requirements of the Equal Protection Clause, for the State's classification rationally furthers the purpose identified by the State:[6] Through mandatory retirement at age 50, the legislature seeks to protect the public by assuring physical preparedness of its uniformed police.[7] Since physical ability generally declines with age, mandatory retirement at 50 serves to remove from police service those whose fitness for uniformed work presumptively has diminished with age. This clearly is rationally related to the State's objective.[8] There is no indication that § 26 (3) (a) has the effect of excluding from service so few officers who are in fact unqualified as to render age 50 a criterion wholly unrelated to the objective of the statute.[9]

That the State chooses not to determine fitness more precisely through individualized testing after age 50 is not to say that the objective of assuring physical fitness is not rationally furthered by a maximum-age limitation. It is only to say that with regard to the interest of all concerned, the State perhaps has not chosen the best means to accomplish this purpose.[10] But where rationality is the test, a State "does not violate the Equal Protection Clause merely because the classifications made by its laws are imperfect." Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S., at 485.

We do not make light of the substantial economic and psychological effects premature and compulsory retirement can have on an individual; nor do we denigrate the ability of elderly citizens to continue to contribute to society. The problems of retirement have been well documented and are beyond serious dispute.[11] But "[w]e do not decide today that the [Massachusetts statute] is wise, that it best fulfills the relevant social and economic objectives that [Massachusetts] might ideally espouse, or that a more just and humane system could not be devised." Id., at 487. We decide only that the system enacted by the Massachusetts Legislature does not deny appellee equal protection of the laws.

The judgment is reversed.

Mr. Justice Stevens took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.


^ . Uniformed state police officers are appointed under Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. c. 22, § 9A (Supp. 1976-1977), which provides:

"Whenever the governor shall deem it necessary to provide more effectively for the protection of persons and property and for the maintenance of law and order in the commonwealth, he may authorize the commissioner to make additional appointments to the division of state police, together with such other employees as the governor may deem necessary for the proper administration thereof.... Said additional officers shall have and exercise within the commonwealth all the powers of constables, except the service of civil process, and of police officers and watchmen.... No person who has not reached his nineteenth birthday nor any person who has passed his thirtieth birthday shall be enlisted for the first time as an officer of the division of state police, except that said maximum age qualification shall not apply in the case of the enlistment of any woman as such an officer."

In pertinent part c. 32, § 26 (3), provides:

"(a) ...Any...officer appointed under section nine A of chapter twenty-two...who has performed service in the division of state police in the department of public safety for not less than twenty years, shall be retired by the state board of retirement upon his attaining age fifty or upon the expiration of such twenty years, whichever last occurs."

"(b) Any...officer...who has performed service...for not less than twenty years and who has not attained...age fifty in the case of an officer appointed under the said section nine A, shall be retired by the state board of retirement in case the rating board, after an examination of such officer or inspector by a registered physician appointed by it, shall report in writing to the state board of retirement that he is physically or mentally incapacitated for the performance of duty and that such incapacity is likely to be permanent."

Since § 9A requires that new enlistees in the Uniformed Branch be no more than 30 years of age, few retirements are delayed past 50 until the expiration of 20 years' service.

The question presented in this case was summarily treated in Cannon v. Guste, 423 U.S. 918 (1975), aff'g No. 74-3211 (May 6, 1975, ED La.); Weisbrod v. Lynn, 420 U.S. 940 (1975), aff'g 383 F. Supp. 933 (DC 1974); McIlvaine v. Pennsylvania, 415 U.S. 986 (1974), dismissing appeal from 454 Pa. 129, 309 A.2d 801 (1973). Our cursory consideration in those cases does not, of course, foreclose this opportunity to consider more fully that question. See, e. g., Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 670-671 (1974).

^ . Jurisdiction was invoked pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1343, and declaratory and injunctive relief was sought under 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201, 2202. The equal protection denial was alleged to constitute a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Appellee made no claim under the Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 81 Stat. 602, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq.

^ . E. g., Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973) (right of a uniquely private nature); Bullock v. Carter, 405 U. S. 134 (1972) (right to vote); Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S. 618 (1969) (right of interstate travel); Williams v. Rhodes, 393 U.S. 23 (1968) (rights guaranteed by the First Amendment); Skinner v. Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson, 316 U.S. 535 (1942) (right to procreate).

^ . E. g., Graham v. Richardson, 403 U.S. 365 (1971) (alienage); McLaughlin v. Florida, 379 U.S. 184 (1964) (race); Oyama v. California, 332 U.S. 633 (1948) (ancestry).

^ . See, e. g., San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 40-41 (1973); Madden v. Kentucky, 309 U.S. 83, 88 (1940); Lindsley v. Natural Carbonic Gas Co., 220 U.S. 61, 78-79 (1911).

^ . See San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, supra, at 17.

^ . A special legislative commission's report preceding the enactment of the age-50 maximum for uniformed police stated: "The Division of State Police, by virtue of the nature of the work demanded of its members, undoubtedly requires comparatively young men of vigorous physique. The nature of the duties to be performed in all weathers is arduous in the extreme . . . . No argument is needed to demonstrate that men above middle life are not usually physically able to perform such duties." Mass. H. Doc. No. 1582, p. 8 (1938). With these considerations in mind, the State's Commissioner of Public Safety argued before the commission for provisions permitting retirement of state police at 45. The commission observed in response that it was "not prepared to say that the contention of the Commissioner of Public Safety, that [state police] over age forty-five should be eligible [for] retirement, is unsound as a matter of public policy." Ibid. The commission, however, deferred the problem of setting retirement ages for the state police to special study, their sole reason for not recommending age 45 being the anticipated pension costs to the State, not the reasonableness of the age with respect to job qualification. Id., at 7-9. Though the age-50 limitation was not specifically proposed by the commission, but was ultimately enacted by the legislature after further study, Act of Aug. 12, 1939, c. 503, § 3 (1939), Mass. Acts & Resolves 737-738 (1939), it is apparent that the purpose of the limitation was to protect the public by assuring the ability of state police to respond to the demands of their jobs. See also Mass. H. Doc. No. 5316, pp. 16-17 (1967); Mass H. Doc. No. 2500, pp. 21, 23-25 (1955). This purpose is also clearly implied by the State's maximum-age scheme, which sets higher mandatory retirement ages for less demanding jobs. See Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. c. 32, §§ 1, 3 (2) (g), 26 (3) (a) (1966 and Supp. 1975).

^ . Appellee seems to have suggested in oral argument that Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. c. 32, §§ 1, 3 (2) (g), 26 (3) (a), also deny equal protection through the job classification established by them. Tr. of Oral Arg. 14, 17-18. Any such argument, however, is unpersuasive. The sections do set a maximum retirement age for uniformed state officers which is less than that set for other law enforcement personnel. It has never been seriously disputed, if at all, however, that the work of uniformed state officers is more demanding than that of other state, or even municipal, law enforcement personnel. It is this difference in work demands that underlies the job classification. Mass. H. Doc. No. 2500, pp. 21-22 (1955).

^ . Review of Massachusetts' maximum-age limitations by state legislative commissions has proceeded on the principle that "maximum retirement age for any group of employees should be that age at which the efficiency of a large majority of the employees in the group is such that it is in the public interest that they retire." Id., at 7.

^ . Indeed, were it not for the existing annual individual examinations through age 50, appellee would concede the rationality of mandatory retirement at 50. Tr. of Oral Arg. 22-23. The introduction of individual examinations, however, hardly defeats the rationality of the State's scheme. In fact, it augments rationality since the legislative judgment to avoid the risk posed by even the healthiest 50-year-old officers would be implemented by annual individual examinations between ages 40 and 50 which serve to eliminate those younger officers who are not at least as healthy as the best 50-year-old officers.

^ . E. g., M. Barron, The Aging American (1961); Cameron, Neuroses of Later Maturity, in Mental Disorders in Later Life 201 (O. Kaplan, 2d ed. 1956); Senate Special Committee on Aging, Developments in Aging: 1971 and January-March 1972, S. Rep. No. 92-784, pp. 48-53 (1972); Hearings before the Subcommittee on Retirement and the Individual of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, 90th Cong., 1st Sess., pts. 1 and 2, pp. 36-46, 87-100, 121-127, 212-217, 464-471 (1967).