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Morrison v. State Board of Education, Supreme Court of California, United States (20 December 1969)

Procedural Posture

The petitioner filed a petition for writ of mandamus to review a determination of the State Board of Education revoking his teaching diplomas. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County denied the writ and the petitioner appealed.


The petitioner held two teaching diplomas, issued by the State Board of Education, which qualified him for employment as a teacher in the public secondary schools of California. He worked for many years as a teacher and had no complaints or criticisms about his performance. In 1963 the petitioner became friends with another male teacher and the two had a brief physical relationship. One year later, the other teacher reported the same-sex relationship to the school superintendent and the petitioner resigned.

In 1965, a procedure was initiated through the State Board of Education to revoke the petitioner’s teaching diplomas. The Board held a hearing and in 1966, pursuant to the recommendations of the hearing examiner, revoked the diplomas because of immoral and unprofessional conduct and moral turpitude as authorised by Section 13202 of the California Education Code. This revocation rendered the petitioner ineligible for employment as a teacher in any public school of the State.


Whether the petitioner’s homosexual relationship constituted “immoral conduct”, “unprofessional conduct” or “moral turpitude”, justifying revocation of his teaching diplomas.

Domestic Law

California Education Code, Section 13202 (“The State Board of Education shall revoke or suspend for immoral or unprofessional conduct, … or for any cause which would have warranted the denial of an application for a certification document or the renewal thereof, or for evident unfitness for service, life diplomas, documents, or credentials issued pursuant to this code.” Among the causes warranting denial of such documents is the commission of “any act involving moral turpitude”).

Jarvella v. Willoughby-Eastlake City School District, Court of Common Pleas of Lake County, Ohio, United States 1967 (reversing the dismissal of a teacher for immorality because of the content of a private letter, since his conduct was not hostile to the welfare of the school community and therefore not covered by the statute).

Norton v. Macy, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, 1969 (affirming that a federal employee could not be dismissed on the basis of his (alleged) homosexuality unless his conduct had a negative impact on the efficiency of the service).

Sarac v. State Board of Education, California Court of Appeal, United States, 1967 (upholding the Board’s decision to revoke petitioner’s teaching credentials on the basis that the homosexual acts he committed amounted to immoral and unprofessional conduct).

Reasoning of the Court

First the Court reviewed jurisprudence concerning cases of dismissal based on “immoral conduct”, “unprofessional conduct” or “moral turpitude”, in order to more precisely define the terms and link them to the fundamental question of unfitness for the job. The Court noted that these terms substantially overlapped, and drew a parallel with disciplinary cases concerning the dismissal or disbarment of attorneys because of “moral turpitude”. The Court’s own jurisprudence indicated that acts did not involve “moral turpitude” warranting disbarment unless from those acts it could be fairly inferred that an attorney’s moral character would probably lead him or her to abuse his or her privileges or to disregard his or her duties. The Court did not consider itself as having “the function or right to regulate the morals, habits or private lives of lawyers” unless those morals, habits and private lives “demonstrate unfitness to practice law or adversely affect the proper administration of justice”. Only then could the Court suspend or revoke the privilege to practice law “in order to protect the public”.

Next, the Court analysed Jarvella v. Willoughby-Eastlake City School District and Norton v. Macy. In Jarvella, the court dealt with the issue of whether a teacher could be dismissed for “immorality” merely on the basis of the vulgar language used in a private letter to a friend. The court held that the relevant provision authorising dismissal for “immorality” did not cover the teacher’s conduct, and he could not therefore be dismissed. According to the court, “immoral conduct” was not to be considered in the abstract but rather as “conduct which is hostile to the welfare of the general public; more specifically in this case, conduct which is hostile to the welfare of the school community”. Moreover, the court affirmed that “the private conduct of a man, who is also a teacher, is a proper concern to those who employ him only to the extent it mars him as a teacher”. Similarly, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia held in Norton that the immoral conduct of an employee could support a dismissal without further inquiry only if said conduct had “some ascertainable deleterious effect on the efficiency of the service”.

The Court built on these prior cases to demonstrate that the terms “immoral conduct”, “unprofessional conduct” and “moral turpitude” contained in the Education Code had to be subject to reasonable interpretation. Accordingly, they were only to cover conduct indicating unfitness to teach. Otherwise, the language of the statute could embrace virtually every conduct potentially subject to disapproval and would therefore leave room for arbitrary and discriminatory application.

The Court then analysed the meaning of the term “immorality”. It argued that, while one could expect a reasonable stable consensus as to what conduct adversely affects students and fellow teachers, no such consensus could be presumed about what is moral and what is not. According to the Court, it was not likely that the Legislature intended, through Section 13202 of the Education Code, “to establish a standard for the conduct of teachers that might vary widely with time, location, and the popular mood”.

Moreover, the Court argued, the meaning of “immoral conduct”, “unprofessional conduct” and “moral turpitude” must relate to the occupation involved. Different professions had different duties and responsibilities, and different standards of probity needed to be applied.

As a consequence, the Court held that, within the meaning of Section 13202, the Board of Education could characterise as “immoral conduct”, “unprofessional conduct” or “moral turpitude” only those acts indicating unfitness to teach. Only in this way could the provision be constitutionally applied to the petitioner in the present case.

The Court considered that all the issues raised by the petitioner (violation of his right to due process, right to privacy and right to work) were resolved by its proper construction of Section 13202. The issue at stake was, therefore, whether or not the Board of Education had applied the same construction when adopting disciplinary action against the petitioner. The Court concluded that the record contained no evidence that the petitioner’s conduct indicated his unfitness to teach. The Board of Education provided no experts’ testimony or evidence linking the petitioner’s conduct to unfitness to teach. According to the Court, “the board failed to show that petitioner’s conduct in any manner affected his performance as a teacher”.

In a 4 to 3 decision, the Court held that the petitioner could not be subject to disciplinary action under a statute authorising the revocation of his teaching diplomas for immoral conduct, unprofessional conduct or acts involving moral turpitude in the absence of any evidence that his conduct indicated his unfitness to teach.

The judgment of the Superior Court denying the writ was then reversed, and the case was remanded to the Superior Court for proceedings consistent with the decision.

Morrison v. State Board of Education, Supreme Court of California, United States (full text of judgment, PDF)