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Rational Basis Test: Definition & Application

Instructor: Brittany McKenna

Brittany is a licensed attorney who specializes in criminal law, legal writing, and appellate practice and procedure.

The rational basis test is a standard of review used to resolve constitutional questions in law. This lesson defines the rational basis test, and discusses the application of the test.

What is the Rational Basis Test?

Imagine that you are a judge. When you think of the U.S. Constitution, you probably think of a big list of rules that everyone is expected to follow. In fact, this perception (though a bit simplistic) is pretty accurate. As a judge, it's your job to understand and apply those rules to any number of legal situations.

The Constitution, with its seven articles and its twenty-seven amendments, is the supreme law of land. The task of interpreting and applying this venerable document belongs to the judicial branch of the government, which encompasses the court system. The court system must apply rules of interpretation to address questions of constitutional law. These rules are known as standards of review, and they are used to determine whether a particular law or government action is constitutional.

One standard of review that is used frequently by courts to resolve constitutional quandaries is the rational basis test. Under the rational basis test, a court must determine whether a law is rationally related to a legitimate government interest. If the answer is 'yes,' the law is constitutional and can be applied.

Further Understanding Through Example

Let's look at an example to better understand how the rational basis test works. Say that a state law in New Hampton bans the practice of medicine without a license. Dave is very interested in practicing medicine, but he has neither the time nor the patience to go to medical school and obtain a license. Dave believes that he has a constitutional right to pursue the career of his choosing, and thinks the New Hampton law is unconstitutional.

Under the rational basis test, Dave is unlikely to prevail. New Hampton has an interest in licensing its doctors in order to protect the community at large, and the law prohibiting the unlicensed practice of medicine is clearly related to that interest. Unfortunately for Dave, a New Hampton court would certainly uphold the constitutionality of the law because the law passes the rational basis test.

In the context of constitutional law, the rational basis test is considered to be the 'lowest' standard of review. In other words, it's easy for a law to pass the rational basis test because the standard is relatively low.

When Is the Rational Basis Test Applied?

The rational basis test is, in essence, the default standard for determining the constitutionality of a law. This means that a court will apply the rational basis test to a constitutional question with very few exceptions. The responsibility of proving the unconstitutionality of a law (i.e. the burden) rests with the party challenging the law.

The rational basis test is the standard of review applied to challenges under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which is comprised of two important parts:

  • The Equal Protection Clause guarantees that all laws will apply equally to all citizens.
  • The Due Process Clause guarantees a legal process to any citizen subjected to government action.

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