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Reed v. Reed

The Supreme Court hears a large variety of cases. The purpose of this court is to serve as a “checks and balance” system for Congress, the President, and the states to make sure that when laws are passed they do not violate the United States Constitution, including all of its Amendments (the first 10 of which make up the Bill of Rights). The interpretation of these words and former cases (a process known as stare decisis) helps inform each Justice’s interpretation of the facts presented in each case. For a full version of the Constitution and its Amendments, click here.

Here is one case, decided by the court in 1971, interpreting whether a preference for men violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Reed v. Reed

404 US 71 (1971)

Issue before the court: Whether a probate code that gives preference to men over women if they are equally entitled to serve as administrator over an estate is based solely on discrimination and therefore violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Facts of the case: Richard Lynn Reed died as a minor on March 29, 1967. His adoptive parents were separated prior to his death. After he died his mother, Sally Reed, applied to be the administrator of her son’s estate. In response, Richard’s father, Cecil Reed, filed a competing petition and asked to be the administrator of his son’s estate.

In Idaho, where this case took place, there was a section of probate code that read: “[o]f several persons claiming and equally entitled [under § 1312] to administer, males must be preferred to females, and relatives of the whole to those of the half blood.”

The judge made no additional findings of fact or reached any conclusions about the capabilities of the parties to serve as administrator and appeared to rely solely on the language in the code that gave a preference to males.

Procedural History: Sally Reed appealed the decision, claiming that this section of the code violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The District Court of the Fourth Judicial District of Idaho found that it did violate the Equal Protection Clause and sent the case back to Probate Court for the “determination of which of the two parties” was more qualified to administer the estate. Cecil Reed appealed that decision to the Idaho Supreme Court. The Idaho Supreme Court found that the Probate Code giving preference to males was mandatory and left no room for discretion, and that it did not violate the Equal Protection Clause. Sally Reed appealed to the Supreme Court.

Holding: The Idaho Probate Code violates the Fourteenth Amendment in that it does not provided equal protection of the laws to any person.

Rule of Law: A state cannot require the people be treated differently on a basis unrelated to the purpose of the statute. In other words, 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.”

Reasoning/Rationale: The Probate Code provides different treatment according to the applicants based on sex and is therefore subject to strict scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause. The question is then whether the statute advances an objective in a way that cannot be accomplished any other way. The state argued that the purpose was to eliminate an area of controversy and reduce the workload on the probate courts. The Court decided that this arbitrary legislative decision solely on the basis of sex is not lawful.

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Stott, Hollowell, Windham & Stancil, PLLC offers legal knowledge and experience spanning over 40 years to provide quality legal services to the greater Gaston and Charlotte regions.

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