SCOTUS | Providing dissimilar treatment for men and women who are similarly situated cannot stand in the face of Fourteenth Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause: Court while construing provisions of Idaho Code

Supreme Court of The United States

Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS): A Full Judge Bench of Warren E. Burger, C.J. and Lewis F. Powell, Jr., Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., William O. Douglas, Thurgood Marshall, Byron R. White, Potter Stewart and William H. Rehnquist, JJ. reversed a judgment appeal of the Idaho Supreme Court.

Richard Lynn Reed, a minor, had died intestate in Ada County, Idaho, on March 29, 1967. His adoptive parents, who had separated sometime prior to his death, were the parties to this appeal. Approximately seven months after his death, his mother, appellant Sally Reed, had filed a petition in the Probate Court of Ada County, seeking appointment as administratrix of her son’s estate. Prior to the date set for a hearing on the mother’s petition, appellee Cecil Reed, the father of the decedent, filed a competing petition seeking to have himself appointed administrator of the son’s estate. The probate court held a joint hearing and treated §§ 15–312 and 15–314 of the Idaho Code as the controlling statutes and read those sections as compelling a preference for Cecil Reed because he was a male.

Section 15–312 designated the persons who were entitled to administer the estate of one who dies intestate, Section listed 11 classes of persons who were so entitled and provided that one of the 11 classes so enumerated was ‘the father or mother’ of the person dying intestate. Under this section then appellant and appellee, being members of the same entitlement class, would seem to have been equally entitled to administer their son’s estate, Section 15–314, however, provided, that

‘of several persons claiming and equally entitled (under § 15–312) to administer, males must be preferred to females, and relatives of the whole to those of the helf blood.’

In issuing its order, the probate court implicitly recognized the equality of entitlement of the two applicants under § 15–312 and noted that neither of the applicants were under any legal disability; the court ruled, however, that appellee, being a male, was to be preferred to the female appellant ‘by reason of Section 15–314 of the Idaho Code.’ Aggrieved by which Sally Reed appealed and her appeal was treated by the District Court of the Fourth Judicial District of Idaho as a constitutional attack on § 15–314. In dealing with the attack, that court held that the challenged section violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and was, therefore, void; the matter was ordered ‘returned to the Probate Court for its determination of which of the two parties’ was better qualified to administer the estate. This order was never carried out, however, Cecil Reed took a further appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court, which reversed the District Court and reinstated the original order naming the father administrator of the estate. Subsequently, Sally Reed thereupon appealed for review by this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1257(2).

The Court concluded that the arbitrary preference established in favor of males by § 15–314 of the Idaho Code cannot stand in the face of the Fourteenth Amendment’s command that no State deny the equal protection of the laws to any person within its jurisdiction.

The Court further stated that Section 15–314 is restricted in its operation to those situations where competing applications for letters of administration have been filed by both male and female members of the same entitlement class established by § 15–312. In such situations, § 15–314 provides that different treatment be accorded to the applicants on the basis of their sex; it thus establishes a classification subject to scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause and applying this clause Court has consistently recognized that the Fourteenth Amendment does not deny to States the power to treat different classes of persons in different ways. The Court quoted from the judgment of Royster Guano Co. v. Virginia, 253 U.S. 412, 415, 40 S.Ct. 560, 561, 64 L.Ed. 989 (1920),

 ‘A classification ‘must be reasonable, not arbitrary, and must rest upon some ground of difference having a fair and substantial relation to the object of the legislation, so that all persons similarly circumstanced shall be treated alike.’

While answering the question in the present case of whether a difference in the sex of competing applicants for letters of administration bears a rational relationship to a state objective that is sought to be advanced by the operation of §§ 15–312 and 15–314, the Idaho Supreme Court concluded that its objective was to eliminate one area of controversy when two or more persons, equally entitled under § 15 312, seek letters of administration and thereby present the probate court ‘with the issue of which one should be named.’ The court also concluded that where such persons are not of the same sex, the elimination of females from consideration ‘is neither an illogical nor arbitrary method devised by the legislature to resolve an issue that would otherwise require a hearing as to the relative merits * * * of the two or more petitioning relatives * * *.’ 93 Idaho, at 514, 465 P.2d, at 638. The Court held that “To give a mandatory preference to members of either sex over members of the other, merely to accomplish the elimination of hearings on the merits, is to make the very kind of arbitrary legislative choice forbidden by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and whatever may be said as to the positive values of avoiding intrafamily controversy, the choice in this context may not lawfully be mandated solely on the basis of sex.” Providing dissimilar treatment for men and women who are thus similarly situated, the challenged section violates the Equal Protection Clause.[Sally M. REED v. Cecil R. REED,  1971 SCC OnLine US SC 174, decided on 22-11-1971]

Suchita Shukla, Editorial Assistant has put this story together

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