Suspect Classification Law and Legal Definition

Suspect classification refers to a characteristic used in applying a law, which a court will review subject to a strict scrutiny standard. A classification is called suspect because it is likely to be based on illegal discrimination. The clearest example of a suspect classification is race. History shows that most laws that use race as a way to classify people are based on racial discrimination and have no legitimate purpose. Racial classifications are automatically suspect, so courts apply the highest level of scrutiny and almost always strike down racial classifications. There is no definitive list of suspect classifications, but the Supreme Court typically treats as suspect any classification of people who:

  • Have an inherent trait.
  • Have a trait that is highly visible
  • As a class, have been disadvantaged historically.
  • Are part of a group that has historically lacked effective representation in the political process.

Racial and ethnic classifications are the two suspect classifications most often given strict scrutiny.