What was the outcome of the Supreme Court case Reed v. Reed, and how has it affected women's rights in the United States?

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Reed v. Reed is an extremely important and significant Supreme Court decision as the ruling marked the first time that women were granted equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.  Equal protection means that women, men, and groups must be treated in the same way. Because of this decision, women (and...

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Reed v. Reed is an extremely important and significant Supreme Court decision as the ruling marked the first time that women were granted equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.  Equal protection means that women, men, and groups must be treated in the same way. Because of this decision, women (and men) had a basis for gender discrimination claims.  Here is the wording of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution:


All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.


Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the executive and judicial officers of a state, or the members of the legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such state, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such state.


No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any state, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any state legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any state, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.


The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any state shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.


The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

While the amendment was adopted in 1868, it took another 103 years before the protections it granted were extended to women. That landmark 1951 case was Reed v. Reed.  This decision rendered state law invalid because of its discrimination against women by unfairly granting privileges to one group (men) and not to another (women). 

The suit was brought when, on March 29, 1967, nineteen-year-old Richard Lynn Reed committed suicide with his father’s rifle.  Richard had, until that time, lived with his father in Idaho. Richard was adopted by Sally and Cecil Reed, had divorced years earlier; Sally had custody of the child in earlier  years, but he eventually went to live with his father. Sally opposed the change in custody and after Richard’s suicide, blamed Cecil, in part, for their son’s death.

Because he died without a will, Sally Reed filed a petition in the Probate Court of Ada County Idaho.  Cecil Reed then filed a petition to have himself appointed the administrator of his son’s meager estate (it was valued at just one thousand dollars). 

Because two petitions were filed, a hearing was held. The judge appointed Cecil the administrator of Richard’s estate. There really was no debate.  The court did not and could not consider the capabilities of Sally over her ex-husband; it had to abide by Idaho’s mandatory probate code; Section 15-312 read (in part):

 “Administrator of the estate of a person dying intestate [to die without a valid will] must be granted to someone . . . in the following order: (1) the surviving husband or wife or . . . ; (2) the children; (3) the father or mother. . .”

While it may seem that there was leeway in choosing either the father or the mother in this verbiage, this is not so.  In Section 15-314 that follows, the law dictates that if “several persons claiming and equally entitled to administer, males must be preferred to females and relatives of whole to those of the half blood." Thus, the judge felt he had to rule in favor of Cecil Reed. Sally appealed, and, obviously, the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, resulting in the ruling that gave women equal rights and protection under the law.

The ruling was unanimous.  Chief Justice Warren E. Burger delivered the opinion, which read (in part):

Having examined the record and considered the briefs [summaries written by the lawyers] and oral arguments of the parties, we have 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.

Chief Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg has said that Reed v. Reed was a "turning point case."

Source: Supreme Court Drama, ©2006 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved

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The case of Reed v. Reed is an important case in the law of sexual discrimination.  It is important because it represents the first time that the Supreme Court of the United States ever ruled that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment can be used to prevent discrimination on the basis of sex.

The Reeds were a married couple who had separated.  While they were separated, their son died.  The two parents then came into conflict over who would be named as the administrator of the son’s estate.  At that time, Idaho (the state where the Reeds lived) law specified that men were to be preferred over women when there was conflict over who should serve in a role such as that of administrator of an estate.  This law, in effect, discriminated against women, making it clear that they were not equal to men when it came to being named to such positions.

In Reed, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Idaho law was unconstitutional.  They ruled that there could be no arbitrary discrimination on the basis of sex.  This was a landmark case in that it was the first to ever hold such a discriminatory law to be unconstitutional.  It has affected women’s rights positively in the US because it set the precedent that women could not be discriminated against arbitrarily.  However, it did not have as sweeping an impact as some might have hoped.  It did not give laws that discriminate on the basis of sex the same kind of scrutiny that laws based on race get.  Thus, this case had an important impact, but it was not as impactful as women’s rights activists might have hoped.

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