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The Equal Protection Clause

At the outset, appellants contend that classifications based upon sex, like classifications based upon race, alienage, and national origin, are inherently suspect and must therefore be subjected to close judicial scrutiny. We agree and, indeed, find at least implicit support for such an approach in our unanimous decision only last Term in Reed v. Reed (1971).

In Reed, the Court considered the constitutionality of an Idaho statute providing that, when two individuals are otherwise equally entitled to appointment as administrator of an estate, the male applicant must be preferred to the female. Appellant, the mother of the deceased . . . claimed that this statute, by giving a mandatory preference to males over females [in the same entitlement class] without regard to their individual qualifications, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court noted that the Idaho statute . . . “establishes a classification subject to scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause.” Under “traditional” equal protection analysis, a legislative classification must be sustained unless it is “patently arbitrary” and bears no rational relationship to a legitimate governmental interest.

In an effort to meet this standard, appellee contended that the statutory scheme was a reasonable measure designed to reduce the workload on probate courts by eliminating one class of contests. Moreover, appellee argued that the mandatory preference for male applicants was in itself reasonable since “men [are] as a rule more conversant with business affairs than . . . women.” Indeed, appellee maintained that “it is a matter of common knowledge, that women still are not engaged in politics, the professions, business or industry to the extent that men are.” And the Idaho Supreme Court, in upholding the constitutionality of this statute, suggested that the Idaho Legislature might reasonably have “concluded that in general men are better qualified to act as an administrator than are women.”

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