Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71; 92 S. Ct. 251; 30 L. Ed. 2d 225 (1971)

Facts—Sally, a mother, separated from her husband and on the death of her adopted son filed a petition in the Probate Court of Ada County, Idaho. She sought to be named administratrix of her son Richard’s estate. Meanwhile the father, Cecil, similarly wanted to be named administrator. Although the Idaho Probate Code favored neither one nor the other, the Probate Court appointed the father as administrator exclusively on the basis of his sex. The separated wife appealed.

Question—In selecting an administrator or administratrix of the estate of a deceased adopted minor son, can the state base its decision on gender?


ReasonsC.J. Burger (9–0). “We have concluded that the arbitrary preference established in favor of males by . . . 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 Fourteenth Amendment does not deny to states the power to treat different classes of persons in different ways. “The equal protection clause of that amendment does, however, deny to States the power to legislate that different treatment be accorded to persons placed by a statute into different classes on the basis of criteria wholly unrelated to the objective of that statute.” The equal protection clause cannot be abridged merely for administrative convenience as suggested by Idaho or to avoid family controversy. “. . . [T] he choice in this context may not lawfully be mandated solely on the basis of sex.”

Note—The Burger Court’s first opinion declared a state law invalid because it discriminated against women. Although sex is not in the “suspect classification,” as decided in Michael M. v. Superior Court of Sonoma County, 450 U.S, 464 (1981), the Supreme Court generally subjects classifications on the basis of sex to heightened levels of scrutiny.

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