Michael M. v. Superior Court of Sonoma County 1981

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Michael M. v. Superior Court of Sonoma County 1981

Petitioner: Michael M.

Respondent: Superior Court of Sonoma County

Petitioner's Claim: That the California "statutory rape" statute unlawfully discriminated on the basis of gender.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Gregory F. Jilka

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Sandy R. Kriegler

Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist, Potter Stewart

Justices Dissenting: William J. Brennan, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens, Byron R. White

Date of Decision: March 23, 1981

Decision: Ruled in favor of the state of California, upholding its statutory rape law.

Significance: Using intermediate scrutiny, the Court upheld a gender-based distinction in criminal law because it addressed an important state goal.

On the summer evening of June 3, 1978, three males including a seventeen-year-old male named Michael M. approached a sixteen-year-old female, Sharon, and her sister. Michael and Sharon, although they had not known each other previously, left the group. Sharon recalled what happened next in a preliminary hearing.

We were drinking at the railroad tracks and we walked over to this bush and he started kissing me and stuff, and I was kissing him back, too, at first. Then I was telling him to stop . . . and I was telling him to slow down and stop. He said, 'Okay, okay.' But then he just kept doing it . . . he asked me if I wanted to walk him over to the park; so we walked over to the park and we sat down on a bench and then he started kissing me again and we were laying on the bench. And he told me to take my pants off . . . I said, 'No,' and I was trying to get up and he hit me back down on the bench and then I just said to myself, 'Forget it,' and I let him do what he wanted to do. . .

Sharon then had sexual intercourse with Michael.

Statutory Rape

A criminal charge was filed in the Municipal Court of Sonoma County, California, claiming that Michael M. had unlawful sexual intercourse with a woman under the age of eighteen. This action violated California's "statutory rape" law. Statutory rape is the crime of having sexual intercourse with a female under an age set by statute (law passed by a legislature), regardless of whether or not she consents (agrees) to the act. Under California's statutory rape law, when two people between the ages of fourteen and seventeen had sexual intercourse and they were not married, the male was guilty of statutory rape but the female was not.

In his defense, Michael M. challenged the constitutionality of California's statutory rape law on the basis of "equal protection of the laws," a civil rights guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment. To be constitutional, a law must follow the intent of the Constitution. Michael M. claimed the law discriminated (giving privileges to one group but not to another similar group) on the basis of gender (the sex of the person) since males alone could be charged under the law. He charged this was unequal protection of the laws and, therefore, unconstitutional. The California Supreme Court ruled against Michael, and upheld (gave support to) the law. Appeal was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. Supreme Court Decides

The U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote, upheld California's statutory rape law. The Court stated that the law did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A majority of justices agreed on the result but could not agree on the reasons for so ruling. Therefore, the Court's opinion, delivered by Justice William H. Rehnquist, is called a plurality opinion. Justice Rehnquist's opinion explained the various arguments in favor of the law.

Preventing Underage Pregnancy

First, the Court recognized that the California law discriminated against a certain group of persons, males, based on gender alone. Under scrutiny (close examination) standards set by the Court, increased scrutiny must be given to cases involving discrimination based on gender. The scrutiny level used in gender cases is intermediate scrutiny as was established in Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan. Under intermediate scrutiny, the law in question must address an "important" interest of the state and if written so that it is "substantially [strongly] related" to that state interest. In other words, the state must have a very important reason to write the law in the first place and the law must be written so that it strongly and directly addresses the issue. The Court ruled that the state's important reason was to prevent underage pregnancy. Rehnquist commented,

We are satisfied not only that the prevention of illegitimate [teenage] pregnancy is at least one of the 'purposes' of the statute, but that the State has a strong interest in preventing such pregnancy.

Consequences Fall to the Female

Equal protection of the laws historically has not been interpreted by the courts to mean that all persons in a state must be equally affected by each law all the time. For instance, persons in state prisons will not have the same equal protection of the laws granted persons who are not in prison. Groups of persons must be in similar circumstances or situations to receive equal protection. The courts call this "similarly situated."

The Court reasoned that males and females are not "similarly situated" with regard to the burdens of pregnancy. For example, pregnancy poses a health risk to young women, but does not pose such a risk to men. As long as the law being applied to one gender and not the other is based on realistic sex differences, it can be seen as constitutional. Rehnquist wrote,

Because virtually all of the significant harmful . . . consequences of teenage pregnancy fall on the young female, a legislature acts well within its authority when it elects to punish only the participant [the male] who, by nature, suffers few of the consequences of his conduct. . . Moreover, the risk of pregnancy itself constitutes a substantial [strong] deterrence [prevent from acting] to young females. [A] criminal sanction [control] imposed solely on males thus serves to roughly 'equalize' the deterrents on the sexes.

Thus, the Court saw the law as equalizing consequences and deterrence for males and females.

Would a Gender-Neutral Law Be Better?

Michael M.'s defense argued that a gender-neutral law would serve California just as well in preventing teenage pregnancies. A gender-neutral law would hold both male and female equally criminally responsible. However, the plurality of justices were convinced by California's argument that a gender-neutral statute rape law would be harder to enforce. The state argued it would reduce the likelihood of a woman reporting a violation if she herself might be subject to prosecution.

Dissenting Justices

The dissenting justices also used the intermediate-scrutiny test but found the California law failed to pass the test. They argued that there was not enough evidence to prove that the law as written strongly addressed the problem of teenage pregnancy. They said that California had not proved that the gender-based discriminatory law prevents underage women from having sexual intercourse or that there are fewer teenage pregnancies under the law than their would be under a gender-neutral law. They pointed out that thirty-seven states have gender-neutral statutory rape laws. These laws, they believed, are potentially greater preventatives for underage sexual activity since two persons instead of one could be punished.


The decision showed that a state can apply laws to males and females differently and be considered constitutionally correct by the courts when the state can show an important reason for doing so. The decision, however, raised unanswered questions for the future about determining when males and females are or are not legally similarly situated when issues arise.


A ccording to the National Victim Center, one out of every eight adult women has been raped and eighty-four percent of rape victims are under the age of twenty-four. The typical rapist is not a stranger. A troubling statistic is four out of five rape victims knew their attackers, according to the FBI. Date rape or acquaintance rape most often is carried out not only by people a victim knows but, much worse, a person they trust. The typical rapist shames, threatens, or intimidates the female into having sex with him. Some victims of date rape become overwhelmed with guilt, especially if they made a bad judgement call about becoming physically involved with the male in the first place. It is common for victims of date rape to feel like they somehow "asked for it." Studies estimate as many as eighty-five percent of rapes go unreported.

Suggestions for further reading

Miklowitz, Gloria D. Past Forgiving. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1995.

Parrot, Andrea. Coping with Date Rape and Acquaintance Rape. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1999.

Warshaw, Robin. I Never Called It Rape: The Ms. Report on Recognizing, Fighting, and Surviving Date and Acquaintance Rape. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.

Williams, Mary E., ed. Date Rape. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1998.

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Michael M. v. Superior Court of Sonoma County 1981

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