Brief Fact Summary. Appellants, a male between the ages of 18-21 and a liquor vendor, challenged the order the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma which dismissed their action challenging the constitutionality of an Oklahoma statute, which prohibited the sale of three and two-tenths percent beer (3.2% beer) to males under 21 years of age and females under the age of 18.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. The Supreme Court ruled that classifications by gender in state statutes must “serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to achievement of those objectives.”
Limitations on a litigant's assertion of jus tertii are not constitutionally mandated, but rather stem from a salutary rule of self-restraint designed to minimize unwarranted intervention into controversies where the applicable constitutional questions are ill-defined and speculative.View Full Point of Law
Issue. Does an Oklahoma statute forbidding sale of 3.2% beer to males under the age of 21 and females under the age of 18 deny equal protection to males aged 18 to 20?
Held. Craig’s claim was rendered moot because he turned 21 during the action. Whitener, on the other hand, had a viable action as a licensed vendor of 3.2% beer, and could rely on an equal protection challenge. Whitener suffered “injury in fact” as the challenged statutory provisions are addressed to vendors like her who either must obey the statutory provisions and incur economic injury or disobey the statute and suffer sanctions. In such a situation, Whitener may resist efforts to restrict her operations as a vendor by advocating the rights of third parties seeking access to her liquor market.
The Court then set the standard for determining whether a statute violated the Equal Protection Clause in a gender context. The Court stated, “classifications by gender must serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to achievement of those objectives.” Oklahoma argued that 18 to 20 year old males drove drunk more often then females in the same age range based on statistics. The Court determined this was insufficient to meet the standard because only a small portion of these males were charged with drunk driving. Even if they did drive drunk more often then females, the statute was targeted at 3.2% beer, which was considered non-intoxicating by the Oklahoma legislature.
Additionally, the statute only covered selling beer and not drinking it. Thus, the relationship between the means used by the Oklahoma legislature banning the sale of 3.2% beer, to the end of promoting traffic safety was too attenuated to meet the “substantial relation” requirement.
Dissent. Justice William Rehnquist (J. Rehnquist) argued the Court should use a “mere rationality” standard as it had in past gender classification cases, instead of the more difficult “substantial relation” standard. He argued the drunk driving males should be viewed in proportion to drunk driving females. The statistics showing that more males drive drunk was sufficient evidence to demonstrate the statute promoted traffic safety.
Discussion. This case sets the standard the Supreme Court applies when reviewing a gender-based classification in a state statute.