The Rational Basis Test and Why it is so Irrational: An 80-Year Retrospective

53 Pages Posted: 1 Oct 2018 Last revised: 17 Jan 2019

See all articles by James M. McGoldrick

James M. McGoldrick

Pepperdine University - Rick J. Caruso School of Law

Date Written: 2018


The Rational Basis test is one of the most common and yet perhaps the most insignificant United States Supreme Court test in the history of the constitution, yet year in year out clients and lawyers will submit another brief hoping against hope that this time there might be a meaningful outcome. There will not be.

This article attempts to explain why the rational basis test is so irrational in its outcome, why basic interests are disregarded in the name of judicial respect for the legislative process, and how easy it would be for there to be a better outcome. The article traces the rise of the rational basis test from U.S. v. Carolene Products in 1938 after the Court’s rejection of Lochnerism, a reference to the high level of due process protection once given by the Court to certain substantive economic interest. As almost an accidental outcome of the rejection of Lochnerism and the Court’s acceptance of the high-end purpose of allowing the legislature to address social ills, the Court adopted a permissive review of all laws not involving fundamental rights or suspect classifications, but laws going to crucial to day in and day out living, laws impacting health, housing, education, and the pursuit of a lawful occupation.

The rational basis test almost without comment replaced the reasonable basis test that had coexisted with Lochnerism but had nothing to do with its excesses. The reasonable basis test was not a high level of review, but it nonetheless placed meaningful limits on the legislative process, protecting even the mundane things of life. This article calls for a return to the reasonable basis test and the respect it would bring to things that matter in our ordinary lives, a respect that the rational basis test has consistently disregarded.

Keywords: rational basis, SCOTUS, supreme court, constitutional law, standard of review, jurisprudence, judicial review

Suggested Citation

McGoldrick, James M., The Rational Basis Test and Why it is so Irrational: An 80-Year Retrospective (2018). 55 San Diego Law Review 751, Pepperdine University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2018/16, Available at SSRN:

James M. McGoldrick (Contact Author)

Pepperdine University - Rick J. Caruso School of Law ( email )

24255 Pacific Coast Highway
Malibu, CA 90263
United States

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