Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 6-1-2021


In 1999, the Supreme Court heard a case that, at the time, was viewed as inconsequential. Saenz v. Roe began as a welfare suit in the state of California, and, at its core, it is a case that tries the grounds on which the states can deny welfare benefits. The historical precedent goes beyond welfare; the precedent touches on subjects of wealth, race, and sex. While the case itself had very little in the means of legal history, which forced the Court to make its decision not based on the law, but on making the ethical choice. The decision of the Supreme Court in Saenz v. Roe (1999) established a precedent that protected the right to travel, a fundamental part of American society long believed to have been guaranteed to all. Justice Paul Stevens and the others took the ethical high road, ensuring that regardless of race, gender, or socio-economic status, all citizens of the United States of America were entitled to equal treatment no matter what state they chose to spend time in. Delving into practices from warning out in colonial New England to the struggles of women in the late 18th century, this paper seeks to explore how the decision made by Justice Stevens to disregard these historical precedents helped to reinforce the ideals of freedom and equality that America is built on. With so little legal basis to build upon, Stevens elected to make the decision that stayed true to the ideological, ethical core of America, but putting to rest elitist, racist, and sexist practices that had plagued the United States well before Saenz v. Roe reached the Supreme Court.


Winner of the 2021 Prindle Prize for Ethics in Social Science