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Zablocki v. Redhail

    Brief Fact Summary. A Wisconsin statute interfered with the right to marriage if one failed to meet certain child support obligations under the statute.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A statute’s direct interference with the right to marry can only be upheld if it passes strict scrutiny.

    Facts. A Wisconsin statute required all its residents, who had minor children not in his or her custody and which he or she is under an obligation to support, to obtain court permission to marry, to demonstrate compliance with the support obligation, and to state that the children covered by the support order are not or not likely to become public charges. The statute was challenged as a violation of the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the United States Constitution (Constitution) because it hindered a couple’s right to marry. The District Court held the statute invalid under the Equal Protection Clause. The Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed.

    Issue. Whether a statute’s significant interference with marriage violates a couple’s fundamental right to marry.

    Held. Justice Thurgood Marshall (J. Marshall). Yes. “When a statutory classification significantly interferes with the exercise of a fundamental right, [such as the fundamental right of marriage], it cannot be upheld unless it is supported by sufficiently important state interests and is closely tailored to effectuate only those interests . . . .” The Wisconsin statute “clearly does interfere directly and substantially with the right to marry” and fails to pass strict scrutiny. The statute requires a marriage by court order, imposes a criminal violation on those not meeting the requirements of the statute and prevents those from gaining a marriage license because they lack the financial resources to pay outstanding child support or cannot prove that their children will be public charges. The state’s goals of having an opportunity to counsel marriage applicants on the importance of paying back child support and protecting the welfare of out-of-custody children through “imping[ing] on
    the right to marry” cannot be supported by the Constitution. Therefore, the judgment is affirmed.

    Dissent. Justice William Rehnquist (J. Rehnquist). Under the Equal Protection and Due Process Clause, this statute only requires examination under the rational basis test. “The statute so viewed is a permissible exercise of the State’s power to regulate family life and to assure the support of minor children . . . .”
    Concurrence. The concurring opinions are as follows:
    Justice Potter Steward (J. Stewart). “The problem in this case is not one of discriminatory classifications, but of unwarranted encroachment upon a constitutionally protected freedom.” The statute at issue “is unconstitutional because it exceeds the bounds of permissible state regulation of marriage, and invades the sphere of liberty protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment” not the Equal Protection Clause.
    Justice Lewis Powell (J. Powell). “Because the State has not established a justification for this unprecedented foreclosure of marriage to many of its citizens solely because of their indigency,” the statute can not be upheld by the Constitution.’
    Justice John Paul Stevens (J. Stevens). “Even assuming that the right to marry may sometimes be denied on economic grounds, this clumsy and deliberate legislative discrimination between the rich and the poor is irrational in so many ways that it cannot withstand scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

    Discussion. The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) holds the right to marry on the same level of importance as other fundamental rights such as procreation, childbirth, childrearing, and family relationships.


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