Brief Fact Summary. A Wisconsin Statute forced individuals to receive court permission in order to marry if they have a minor issue not in their custody which they are obligated to pay support for. Appellant was unable to receive court permission under the statute and brought suit on behalf of all residents similarly situated.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. If a statute significantly interferes with the exercise of a fundamental constitutional right, it must be supported by sufficiently important state interests and closely tailored to effectuate only those interests. Such interests are subject to strict scrutiny or “critical examination.”
Issue. Is a Wisconsin statute that provides that members of a certain class of residents cannot marry, within the State or elsewhere, without first obtaining a court order granting permission to marry constitutional?
Held. The statute is unconstitutional because it significantly interferes with the exercise of a fundamental right and is not supported by sufficiently important state interests and is not closely tailored to effectuate only those interests.
The court employs a critical examination of the state interests advanced in support of the statute because the right to marry is of fundamental importance. Previous court decisions have confirmed that the right to marry is protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Although reasonable restrictions that do not significantly interfere with the right to marry may be imposed, the present statute absolutely prevents some in the protected class from obtaining the required order, and places sufficient burdens and significant intrusions on others.
Appellant claims that the statute supports the State’s interest in counseling the applicant as to the need of fulfilling his prior support obligations and protects the welfare of the out-of-custody children. The first claim is faulty because even if counseling is provided there would be no interest in continuing to withhold permission to marry after counseling is completed. The second is faulty for two reasons. First, if the individual is unable to meet payments, the statute simply prevents marriage without providing any money to the minor children. Second, the State has numerous other means for extracting the payments.
There is also suggestion that the statute prevents applicants from incurring new support obligations. However, this is underinclusive because it limits only the new financial commitments arising out of a marriage and overinclusive because in many cases the income from the new spouse may increase the applicant’s ability to pay. The statute may only result in more children being born out of wedlock.
Justice Stewart. The majority’s reliance on the Equal Protection Clause is misplaced because it is intended to deal only with invidiously discriminatory classifications. The Due Process Clause protects the liberty right to marriage, and protection of the State’s interests must fall short of not permitting poor people to marry.
Justice Stevens. The Wisconsin Legislature incorrectly assumed that (a) only fathers would be affected by the legislation and (b) they would never marry employed women. The Statute cannot withstand scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Discussion. The majority finds the statute to violate constitutional protections under both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses. The Concurrences appear to differ mainly on which of these two clauses is more applicable.