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Historic U.S. Supreme Court Case Declares Gender-Biased Alimony Statutes Unconstitutional

A landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, decided in 1967, declared certain Alabama alimony statutes unconstitutional because they required men, and not women, to pay alimony.

Background

In February 1974, a court entered a final decree of divorce to dissolve the marriage of an Alabama couple. Pursuant to Alabama’s alimony statutes, the divorce decree also directed the husband to pay the wife alimony on a monthly basis.

Approximately two years later, the wife initiated a contempt proceeding against her former husband, alleging that he had failed to make support payments. In response to her allegations, the husband contended that Alabama’s alimony statutes were unconstitutional. This dispute eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Equal Protection Clause

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment ensures the fairness of laws – in other words, it guarantees that similarly situated persons will be treated alike. In this case, the Alabama alimony statutes authorized courts to place an obligation of alimony upon husbands, but never upon wives. As a consequence of this gender-based classification, the husband argued that the statutes were unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court Decision

To withstand an Equal Protection challenge, a gender classification “must serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to achievement of those objectives.” In other words, if the gender classification at issue does not meet this test, the Court will strike it down and declare the classification unconstitutional.

In this case, the Court examined three conceivable governmental objectives for the alimony statutes and analyzed them as follows:

  • The state may have preferred an allocation of family responsibilities in a manner such that the wife plays a dependent role.

After analysis, the Court determined that this objective did not validate the gender-based classification in the alimony statutes. Citing a previous case, the Court stated that the “old notion” that “‘generally it is the man’s primary responsibility to provide a home and its essentials’ can no longer justify a statute that discriminates on the basis of gender.” The Court also noted that women were “no longer…destined solely for the home and the rearing of the family… .”

  • The alimony statutes may have been intended to assist needy spouses, “using sex as a proxy for need.”

While conceding that providing assistance to needy spouses was a legitimate and important governmental objective, the Court ultimately held that the gender-based classification in the alimony statutes was not “substantially related to the achievement of [that objective].” Under Alabama’s statutory scheme, divorce courts held individualized hearings where the parties’ financial circumstances were examined. Because these hearings determined which spouses were truly in need, the Court held that the “needy spouse” rationale did not protect the alimony statutes from constitutional attack.

  • The state’s purpose in enacting the alimony statutes may have been to compensate women for past discrimination during marriage.

Here, the Court cited an earlier case where it had found that the “reduction of the disparity in economic condition between men and women caused by the long history of discrimination against women” constituted an important governmental objective. However, like the “needy spouse” rationale, the Court held that the gender-based classification was not substantially related to governmental objectives. Again, the individualized hearings functioned to determine which wives were in fact discriminated against. As a consequence, this “compensation” rationale also failed to legitimize the alimony statutes.

In conclusion, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that these three government objectives did not protect the alimony statutes from constitutional challenge. As such, the Court held that the Alabama alimony statutes violated the Equal Protection Clause and struck them down as unconstitutional.


© 2017 Eugene Feldman, Attorney at Law, A Professional Corporation. All rights reserved.
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