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Reed v. Reed 1971

Reed v. Reed 1971

Appellant: Sally Reed

Appellee: Cecil Reed

Appellant's Claim: That a Idaho law favoring the appointment of a man, merely because he was male, over a woman to be administrator of a deceased person's estate violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Chief Lawyers for Appellant: Allen R. Derr, Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Chief Lawyers for Appellee: Charles S. Stout, Myron E. Anderson

Justices for the Court: Hugo L. Black, Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, William O. Douglas, John Marshall Harlan II, Thurgood Marshall, Potter Stewart, Byron R. White

Justices Dissenting: None

Date of Decision: November 22, 1971

Decision: Ruled in favor of Sally Reed by finding that Idaho's probate law discriminated against women.

Significance: This decision was the first time in the Fourteenth Amendment's 103-year history that the Supreme Court ruled that its Equal Protection Clause protected women's rights. The ruling formed the basis for protecting women's and men's rights in gender discrimination claims in many situations over the next thirty years.

The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads, "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge [lessen] the privileges . . . of citizens of the United States . . . nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction [geographical area over which a government has control] the equal protection of the laws." Equal protection of the laws means persons or groups of persons in similar situations must be treated equally by the laws. Although the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted in 1868, it was 103 years before the U.S. Supreme Court applied this constitutional guarantee of equal protection to women. The Court did so with Reed v. Reed in 1971. Lawyer in the case and future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg labeled Reed a "turning point case." The Court for the first time held a state law invalid because it discriminated (unfairly giving privileges to one group but not to another similar group) against women.

The Reeds of Idaho

The case had its beginning on March 29, 1967 in Ada County, Idaho when nineteen-year-old Richard Lynn Reed, using his father's rifle, committed suicide. Richard's adoptive parents, Sally and Cecil Reed, had separated sometime prior to his death. Richard's early childhood was spent in the custody (the legal right to make key decisions for another) of Sally, but once he reached his teenage years custody was transferred to his father. Ginsburg recalled that Sally had opposed the custody change and later believed part of the responsibility for her son's death rested with Cecil.

Probate Court

Richard died without a will, so Sally filed a petition in the Probate Court of Ada County to be administrator (director) of Richard's estate (all that a person owns), valued at less than one thousand dollars. Probate courts oversee the administration of deceased persons' estates. Cecil Reed filed a competing petition seeking to have himself appointed as the administrator of his son's estate.

Following a hearing on the two petitions, the Probate Court appointed Cecil the administrator. In deciding who would be administrator, the court did not consider the capabilities of each parent but went strictly by Idaho's mandatory (required) probate code. Section 15-312 of the code reads:

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

Under this section "father" and "mother" were equal in being entitled (authorized) to administer the will. However, Section 15-314 provided, "Of several persons claiming and equally entitled to administer, males must be preferred to females and relatives of whole to those of the half blood."

Apparently, the probate judge considered himself bound by Section 15-314 to choose the male, Cecil, over the female, Sally, since the two were otherwise "equally entitled."

Mixed Signals

Sally appealed the Probate Court's decision to the District Court of the Fourth Judicial District. Sally's lawyer, Allen R. Derr, argued that Idaho's law violated Sally's constitutional rights of equal protection of the laws guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment. The District Court agreed, held the challenged section of the law unconstitutional, and ordered the case back to the Probate Court to determine which parent was better qualified, regardless of sex, to be administrator. However, the order was not carried out since Cecil immediately appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court.

The Idaho Supreme Court rejected the District Court's ruling and reestablished Cecil, since he was male, as administrator of his son's estate. In reaching their decision, the Idaho Supreme Court looked at why the Idaho legislature had passed Section 15-314 in the first place. They found that Idaho's legislature "evidently concluded that in general men are better qualified to act as an administrator than women." Also, they found that the workload of the Probate Court would be lessened if it was not required to have a hearing every time two or more relatives petitioned to be administrator. Therefore, the Idaho Supreme Court found it neither unreasonable nor arbitrary (dictatorial, not open to other opinions) but an easy convenience for the courts to decide simply on the basis of being male or female. Sally appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which agreed to hear the case.

Equal Protection for Women, Too

Ginsburg along with others associated with the Women's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) joined Derr to represent Sally before the U.S. Supreme Court. Derr's team argued, as women's rights advocates had since the 1870s, that women's rights were protected under the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Cecil's lawyers argued that the Idaho law provided a reasonable way of cutting Probate Court's heavy workload.

The Court, in a unanimous (9–0) decision, ruled that the Idaho probate law violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, in delivering the opinion of the Court, wrote:

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.


B orn in Brooklyn, New York in 1933, Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated Phi Beta Kappa (with high honors) in 1954 from Cornell University. She married, gave birth to her first child, then entered Harvard University Law School by 1956. As editor of the highly respected Harvard Law Review, she gained the nickname "Ruthless Ruthie." When her husband began work with a New York law firm, she transferred to Columbia Law School where she received her law degree in 1959, tied for first in her class.

Although an accomplished scholar, when Ginsburg sought employment she ran into the traditional stereotyping (fixed impression) of female lawyers which limited opportunities in a male-dominated profession. In addition to being female, she was also Jewish and a mother. Ginsburg persevered, eventually becoming a law professor at Rutgers University School of Law from 1963 to 1972. She then taught at Columbia Law School from 1972 to 1980, becoming the first female faculty member to earn tenure (permanent staff position).

During her time at Columbia, she was also an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union where she founded the Women's Rights Project. Championing the rights of women, she argued six cases before the U.S. Supreme Court between 1973 and 1976 and won five of them. Ginsburg demanded equal protection be applied to gender issues and the end of discrimination along gender lines. President Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg in 1980 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit where she served until 1993 when President Bill Clinton nominated her for Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed Ginsburg by a vote of 96-3. As a justice, Ginsburg became a tireless supporter of equal rights and equal treatment for all.

Although the Court pointed out that at times the Fourteenth Amendment allows persons or a group of persons to be put into classifications (groupings of people based on some selected factor) and treated differently, those classifications "must be reasonable, not arbitrary" and must honestly relate to a state objective (goal). The Idaho Supreme Court had found Section 15-314's objective was to reduce workload; however, the U.S. Supreme Court found:

The crucial question . . . is whether 15-314 advances that objective in a manner consistent with the command of the Equal Protection Clause. We hold that it does not. To give a mandatory preference to members of either sex over members of the other, merely to accomplish the elimination of hearings . . . is to make the very kind of arbitrary legislative choice forbidden by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and . . . the choice . . . may not lawfully be mandated solely on the basis of sex.

Sally Reed and her lawyers had won what women had sought in the courts for a century—Fourteenth Amendment protection of women's equal rights under the laws.

A Cornerstone for Future Cases

Reed v. Reed was the first ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that concluded laws arbitrarily requiring gender (based on the sex of the person) discrimination were violations of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. During the following decades, the Court used this decision as a basis to strike down many laws discriminating against women. Men also benefitted from the ruling since it prevents courts from basing opinions on generalizations about either gender.

Suggestions for further reading

American Civil Liberties Union. [Online] Website: (Accessed on July 31, 2000).

Cullen-DuPont, Kathryn. The Encyclopedia of Women's History in America. New York: Facts on File, 2000.

Davis, Flora. Moving the Mountain: The Women's Movement in America Since 1960. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Ross, Susan D., Lisabelle K. Pingler, Deborah A. Ellis, and Kary L. Moss. The Rights of Women: The Basic ACLU Guide to Women's Rights. 3rd Edition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.

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