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Hampton v. Mow Sun Wong

The Case: U.S. Supreme Court decision on the rights of aliens

Date: Decided on June 1, 1976

Significance: The Hampton decision took an expansive view of noncitizens’ right to public employment and severely restricted the extent to which the federal government and federal agencies might refuse to employ noncitizens.

Mow Sun Wong was an alien immigrant residing lawfully and permanently in the United States. When he applied for a position with the U.S. Civil Service Commission, his application was rejected solely because of the agency’s policy of employing only American citizens. Many federal agencies maintained the same policy. In a class-action suit, Wong and four other resident aliens accused the agencies of unconstitutional discrimination. The Supreme Court had previously struck down such discrimination when practiced by state governments. Although the district court upheld the federal agencies’ policy, the court of appeals reversed and held that the policy of excluding all aliens without a special justification violated the principle of equal justice under the law, which had been established as a component of the due process commanded by the Fifth Amendment.

By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court agreed with the court of appeals. Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens presented a long, nuanced discussion of the issues. Although endorsing the idea that the “overriding national interests may [often] provide a justification for a citizenship requirement in the federal service,” Stevens repudiated the notion that “any agent of the national government may arbitrarily subject all resident aliens to different substantive rules from those applied to citizens.” Whenever the national government deprives a person of “an aspect of liberty,” it must explicitly refer to that interest and show that the deprivation directly promotes that interest. Distinguishing between mandating a rule and passively accepting it, moreover, Stevens observed that Congress had allowed but never commanded the Civil Service Commission to refuse to employ aliens legally residing in the country.

Thomas Tandy Lewis

Further Reading

  • O’Brien, David M. Constitutional Law and Politics. 7th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. 
  • Schwartz, Bernard, ed. The Burger Court: Counter- Revolution or Confirmation? New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 

See also: Chinese immigrants; Citizenship; Congress, U.S.; Constitution, U.S.; Due process protections; Immigration law; Supreme Court, U.S.

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