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Reed v. Reed

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Significance: A landmark case marking the first time that the Supreme Court applied the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to strike down a statute because of gender discrimination.


When Richard Reed died, both of his separated parents, Cecil Reed and Sally Reed, petitioned the probate court to administer the estate. The Idaho code required the court to give mandatory preference to the father, without any consideration of the relative capabilities of the applicants. Sally Reed argued that the mandatory preference was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court, by a 7-0 vote, agreed with her contention. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger insisted that any classifications of people must not be arbitrary and must have “a fair and substantial relation to the object of the legislation.” Because there was no rational basis to think that men were always more qualified than women to administer wills, the probate judge must hold a hearing to determine the relative merits of the two petitioners. Burger refused to consider whether sex might be a suspect classification, and his endorsement of the rational basis test allowed states considerable discretion in making gender distinctions. In later cases, including Craig v. Boren (1976), the Court adopted a more demanding test requiring a heightened level of scrutiny.