404 U.S. 71 (1971), 70-4, Reed v. Reed

Docket Nº:No. 70-4
Citation:404 U.S. 71, 92 S.Ct. 251, 30 L.Ed.2d 225
Party Name:Reed v. Reed
Case Date:November 22, 1971
Court:United States Supreme Court

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404 U.S. 71 (1971)

92 S.Ct. 251, 30 L.Ed.2d 225




No. 70-4

United States Supreme Court

Nov. 22, 1971

Argued October 19, 1971



A mandatory provision of the Idaho probate code that gives preference to men over women when persons of the same entitlement class apply for appointment as administrator of a decedent' estate is based solely on a discrimination prohibited by and therefore violative of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

93 Idaho 511, 465 P.2d 635, reversed and remanded.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

BURGER, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

Richard Lynn Reed, a minor, died intestate in Ada County, Idaho, on March 29, 1967. His adoptive parents, who had separated sometime prior to his death, are the parties to this appeal. Approximately seven months after Richard's death, his mother, appellant Sally Reed, filed a petition in the Probate Court of Ada County,

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seeking appointment as administratrix of her son's estate.1 Prior to the date set for a hearing on the mother's petition, appellee Cecil Reed, the father of the decedent, filed a competing petition seeking to have himself appointed administrator of the son's estate. The probate court held a joint hearing on the two petitions and thereafter ordered that letters of administration be issued to appellee Cecil Reed upon his taking the oath and filing the bond required by law. The court treated §§ 15-312 and 15-314 of the Idaho Code as the controlling statutes, and read those sections as compelling a preference for Cecil Reed because he was a male.

Section 15-3122 designates the persons who are entitled to administer the estate of one who dies intestate. In making these designations, that section lists 11 classes of persons who are so entitled, and provides, in substance,

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that the order in which those classes are listed in the section shall be determinative of the relative rights of competing applicants for letters of administration. One of the 11 classes so enumerated is "[t]he father or mother" of the person dying intestate. Under this section, then, appellant and appellee, being members of the same entitlement class, would seem to have been equally entitled to administer their son's estate. Section 1314 provides, however, that

[o]f several persons claiming and equally entitled [under § 1312] to administer, males must be preferred to females, and relatives of the whole to those of the half blood.

In issuing its order, the probate court implicitly recognized the equality of entitlement of the two applicants under § 15-312, and noted that neither of the applicants was under any legal disability; the court ruled, however, that appellee, being a male, was to be preferred to the female appellant "by reason of Section 15-314 of the Idaho Code." In stating this conclusion, the probate judge gave no indication that he had attempted to determine the relative capabilities of the competing applicants to perform the functions incident to the administration of an estate. It seems clear the probate judge considered himself bound by statute to give preference to the male candidate over the female, each being otherwise "equally entitled."

Sally Reed appealed from the probate court order, and her appeal was treated by the District Court of the Fourth Judicial District of Idaho as a constitutional attack on § 15-314. In dealing with the attack, that court held that the challenged [92 S.Ct. 253] section violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,3 and was, therefore,

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void; the matter was ordered "returned to the Probate Court for its determination of which of the two parties" was better qualified to administer the estate.

This order was never carried out, however, for Cecil Reed took a further appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court, which reversed the District Court and reinstated the original order naming the father administrator of the estate. In reaching this result, the Idaho Supreme Court first dealt with the governing statutory law and held that, under § 15-312 "a father and mother are `equally entitled' to letters of administration," but the preference given to males by § 15-314 is "mandatory" and leaves no room for the exercise of a probate court's discretion in the appointment of administrators. Having thus definitively and authoritatively interpreted the statutory provisions involved, the Idaho Supreme Court then proceeded to examine, and reject, Sally Reed's contention that § 15-314 violates the Equal Protection Clause by giving a mandatory preference to males over females, without regard to their individual qualifications as potential estate administrators. 93 Idaho 511, 465 P.2d 635.

Sally Reed thereupon appealed for review by this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1257(2), and we noted probable jurisdiction. 401 U.S. 934. Having examined the record and considered the briefs and oral arguments of the parties, we have concluded that the arbitrary preference established in favor of males by § 15-314 of the Idaho Code cannot stand in the face of the Fourteenth...

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