Frontiero v. Richardson: Case Brief, Summary & Significance

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet
The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the government treat everyone equally under the law. In this case, we will learn how the Supreme Court dealt with the issue in ''Frontiero v. Richardson''.

Good for the Gander, Good for the Goose

Everyone should get the same pay for the same job, right? In the military, your pay is based on your rank. On the surface, this seems like a good way to ensure equality in pay. However, what about benefits? Should they be different based on gender? This is the issue the Supreme Court took up in Frontiero v. Richardson (1973).

Facts of the Case

Lt Sharron Frontiero of the United States Air Force applied for benefits for her husband, Joseph. She claimed him as a ''dependant'' so they could get housing and medical benefits. When applying, the law determined a dependant as one who relies on the other for over one half of their support. When a male applied for benefits from the military, it was assumed the wife was a dependant, and thus there was no inquiry into her actual earnings to determine her dependant status.

However, when a female applied for benefits for her male spouse, the inquiry was automatic. Frontiero sued the military in Federal District Court and lost. They appealed directly to the United States Supreme Court which took the case.

Historical Background

At the time of this case, the national debate on pay equity was in the forefront. This was in part because of issues like the present case, and in part by the fact that the Equal Rights Amendment. This amendment, which proposed to constitutionally prohibit discrimination on the bases of gender, was working its way through legislatures throughout the 50 states. The amendment was never ratified, but it's proposal brought many gender issues to the forefront.

Millions of men and women demonstrated their support for the Equal Rights Amendment which fell three states short in its ratification attempt.

A year prior to the present case, the Supreme Court in Reed v. Reed struck down an Idaho law that stated that male estate administrator appointees must be preferred over females. The 14th Amendment extended the protections in the Bill of Rights to the citizens of the states.

It also contained two important clauses that directly gave those same citizens certain protections. The equal protection clause stated that everyone was equal under the law, and the other is the due process clause. This clause requires that before the government could take away someone's life, liberty or property, there had to be a judicial process.

Issue and Decision

The question presented to the US Supreme Court was whether the military violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, by scrutinizing the spouses of female members applying for benefits, while not doing the same with the spouses for male members. The Court ruled that it did.

Congress passed a law that extended benefits to service members' spouses in order to attract more volunteers into the military. These benefits were for the dependants of the military service member who had to rely on their spouse for over one half of their support. The financial status of the spouses of the male service members was not questioned, while the applications of the female members were.

The government claimed that ''... men are generally the breadwinner in society and the women are generally the dependent.'' This resulted in ''considerable savings'' when they did not have to spend funds to verify the applications. The Court recognized that the administrative efficiency argument was not without merit as; at the time of the case, over 99 percent of the military was male. However, the court rejected the notion that this was enough of a reason to allow the military to discriminate on the basis of gender.

Justice William Brennan delivered the majority opinion, and wrote that gender is a protected class, a group that is shown to be a victim of invidious discrimination. This means that when looking at laws, or any government action that facially discriminates (meaning the law is written to treat the group detrimentally) on the basis of gender, then the law should be reviewed under the strict scrutiny standard. This means that to be constitutional, a discriminatory law must:

  1. Further a compelling government interest, and
  2. Be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.

Previously in gender discrimination cases, the Supreme Court employed the rational basis test, meaning the government need only show a rational basis to a legitimate government interest, to support a discriminatory law. However, Brennan pointed out that in Reed v. Reed the court struck down an Idaho law that gave statutory preference to male administrators over females using the rational basis standard.

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