Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Peña – Case Brief Summary

Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Peña, 515 U.S. 200, 115 S. Ct. 2097, 132 L. Ed. 2d 158 (1995).


Adarand Constructors (P) submitted the lowest bid to general contractor Mountain Gravel on a subcontracting job for a government highway project. The general contractor awarded the job to Gonzales Construction, a small business controlled by a “socially and economically disadvantaged” person, in order to take advantage of financial incentives offered by the Department of Transportation (Peña, D).

Adarand Constructors filed suit against the Department of Transportation alleging that the financial incentive for hiring such companies was unconstitutional. The federal district court entered judgment for the defendant. The Tenth Circuit affirmed, holding that the award of financial incentives was valid under an intermediate scrutiny standard. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.


  • On what basis will the court assess the constitutionality of providing financial incentives to encourage the award of subcontracting jobs to minority owned businesses?

Holding and Rule

  • Racial classifications must be analyzed under a strict scrutiny standard and such classifications are constitutional only if they are narrowly tailored measures that advance compelling governmental interests.

The applicable standard of review is not determined based on which party is discriminated against, but on the basis of whether there is discrimination at all. All racial classifications under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment are analyzed under strict scrutiny; and a Fifth Amendment classification encompasses the same analysis as Fourteenth Amendment cases.

The court held that good intentions alone are insufficient to sustain a supposedly benign racial classification. A statute of this kind inevitably is perceived to rest on the assumption that those who benefit from such a special preference are somehow less qualified purely by virtue of race. Such practices hinder rather then help race based issues. The court held that Congress must provide a reason for implementing such a spending act.

The court held that all governmental action based on race should be subject to detailed judicial scrutiny to ensure that the personal right to equal protection has not been infringed. In order to not violate the Constitution, there must be a compelling government interest.


Vacated and remanded for further determination of the case under a strict scrutiny standard.

Dissenting (Stevens, Ginsburg)

This is not a bad law. The government is trying to make right on past and current discrimination by benefiting minority-owned businesses. Such consistency, as stated in the dissent, does not help laws such as these, as all statutes, even if benign in nature, stand to fall by the wayside under strict scrutiny.

Concurring (Scalia)

The government can never take a compelling interest in discriminating on the basis of race in order to make up for past discrimination.

Concurring (Thomas)

These programs undermine the moral basis of equal protection.


This case is frequently cited incorrectly as Adarand Construction, Inc. v. Pena or alternatively as Adarand Contractors v. Pena.

See Nixon v. Administrator of General Services for a constitutional law case brief in which the Supreme Court held that the compelling governmental interests underlying the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act outweighed Nixon’s First Amendment claim.

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