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Michael M. v. Superior Court

    Brief Fact Summary. California’s statutory rape law holds only males, not females, criminally liable for having sexual intercourse with females under the age of 18.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A statute’s gender-based classification is constitutionally permissible if the classification bears a substantial relationship to an important governmental interest.

    Facts. The Petitioner, Michael M. (Petitioner), a seventeen and a half year-old male, sought to have California’s statutory rape law declared unconstitutional, on state and federal grounds, because the law defines statutory rape as “an act of sexual intercourse accomplished with a female not the wife of the perpetrator, where the female is under the age of 18 years,” and thus, unlawfully discriminates on the basis of gender. The California trial and appellate courts denied the Petitioner’s request for relief. The Supreme Court of California upheld the judgments of the lower courts. The ruling of the Supreme Court of California was affirmed.

    Issue. Whether California’s “statutory rape” law violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution) because it only holds males criminally liable for sexual intercourse as defined under the statute.

    Held. (J. Rehnquist) No. The California’s statutory rape law bears a substantial relationship to important governmental objectives, and thus, the statute passes constitutional muster. The judgment of the California Supreme Court is affirmed.
    The California statute withstands a constitutional challenge because it supports the state’s effort to prevent illegitimate pregnancies, to prevent “significant social, medical, and economic consequences for both the mother and her child, to prevent abortions, and to prevent children born, as a result of illegitimate pregnancies, to become wards of the State.”
    The California statute protects young women from sexual intercourse that can cause consequences that are “profound[ly] physical, emotional, and psychological.” Because only women can become pregnant, “the consequences of sexual intercourse and pregnancy fall more heavily on the female than on the male.”

    Dissent. The dissenting opinions are as follows:
    Justice William Brennan (J. Brennan) California has not proven its burden that “there are fewer teenage pregnancies under its gender-based statutory rape law than there would be if the law were gender neutral . . . .”
    Justice John Paul Stevens (J. Stevens) California’s statute should apply to males as well as females because sexual intercourse between a male and a female constitutes “two guilty wrongdoers” not just one. According to the Constitution, state laws must “govern impartially.”
    Concurrence. The concurring opinions are as follows:
    Justice Potter Steward (J. Stewart). Despite recognizing the significance of the physiological differences between men and women – the fact that only women can become pregnant – the Supreme Court of the United States’ ruling does not use these differences as merely a “pretext for invidious discrimination,” but instead looks to the overriding state interest to protect young women who, because of their physiological differences, are not similarly situated as men and thus, are faced with “substantial physical risks” that are not shared by men.
    Justice Harry Blackmun (J. Blackmun). The California statute is constitutional because it helps to curtail the problem of teenage pregnancy and supports a substantial relationship to an important governmental objective.

    Discussion. When men and women are situated differently, a statute creating gender-based classifications can withstand a constitutional challenge if the purpose of the statute can pass the intermediate level of scrutiny.


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