In 1971, Reed v. Reed became the first U.S. Supreme Court case to declare sex discrimination a violation of the 14th Amendment. In Reed v. Reed, the Court held that an Idaho law's unequal treatment of men and women based on sex was a violation of the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.
The Idaho Law
Reed v. Reed examined Idaho probate law, which deals with administration of an estate after a person's death. The Idaho statutes automatically gave mandatory preference to males over females when there were two competing relatives to administer a deceased person's estate.
- Idaho Code Section 15-312 listed the classes of persons "entitled to administer the estate of one who dies intestate." In order of preference, they were 1. Surviving spouse 2. Children 3. The father or mother 4. The brothers 5. The sisters 6. The grandchildren…and so on through next of kin and other legally competent persons.
- Idaho Code Section 15-314 stated that if there were several persons equally entitled under section 15-312 to administer the estate, such as two persons in category 3 (the father or the mother), then "males must be preferred to females, and relatives of the whole to those of the half blood."
Did the Idaho probate law violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment? The Reeds were a married couple who had separated. Their adopted son died without a will, and both Sally Reed (mother) and Cecil Reed (father) filed petitions seeking appointment as administrator of the son's estate. The law gave preference to Cecil, based on the controlling Idaho statutes that said males must be preferred. The case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the Reed v. Reed opinion, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that "the Idaho Code cannot stand in the face of the 14th Amendment's command that no State deny the equal protection of the laws to any person within its jurisdiction."
Reed v. Reed was an important case for feminism because it recognized sex discrimination as a violation of the Constitution. Reed v. Reed became the basis of many more decisions that protected men and women from gender discrimination.
Idaho's mandatory provision preferring males to females reduced the probate court workload by eliminating the need to hold a hearing to determine who was better qualified to administer an estate. The Supreme Court concluded that the Idaho law did not achieve the state's objective - the objective of reducing the probate court workload - "in a manner consistent with the command of the Equal Protection Clause." The "dissimilar treatment" based on sex for persons in the same class of section 15-312 (in this case, mothers and fathers) was unconstitutional.
Other Discrimination Not At Issue
Idaho Code section 15-312 also gave preference to brothers over sisters, even listing them in two separate classes (see numbers 4 and 5 of section 312). Reed v. Reed explained in a footnote that this part of the statute was not at issue because it did not affect Sally and Cecil Reed. Since the parties had not challenged it, the Supreme Court did not rule on it in this case. Therefore, Reed v. Reed struck down the dissimilar treatment of women and men who were in the same group under section 15-312, mothers and fathers, but did not go so far as to strike down the preference of brothers as a group above sisters.
A Notable Attorney
One of the lawyers for appellant Sally Reed was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who later became the second female justice on the Supreme Court.