429 U.S. 181 (1976), 75-1197, Mathews v. De Castro

Docket Nº:No. 75-1197
Citation:429 U.S. 181, 97 S.Ct. 431, 50 L.Ed.2d 389
Party Name:Mathews v. De Castro
Case Date:December 13, 1976
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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429 U.S. 181 (1976)

97 S.Ct. 431, 50 L.Ed.2d 389

Mathews

v.

De Castro

No. 75-1197

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 13, 1976

Argued November 8, 1976

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ILLINOIS

Syllabus

The statutory classification of § 202(b)(1) of the Social Security Act whereby a married woman under 62 whose husband retires or becomes disabled is granted monthly benefits under the Act if she has a minor or other dependent child in her care, but a divorced woman under 62 whose ex-husband retires or becomes disabled does not receive such benefits, held not to violate the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Such classification, by enabling a married woman already burdened with dependent children to meet the addition need created when her husband reaches old age or becomes disabled, comports with the Act's primary objective of providing workers and their families with basic protection against hardships created by the loss of earnings due to illness or old age; and it was not irrational for Congress, in deciding to defer monthly payments to divorced wives of retired or disabled wage earners until they reach the age of 62, to recognize the basic fact that divorced couples typically live separate lives. Pp. 185-189.

403 F.Supp. 23, reversed.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., concurred in the judgment.

STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

Under the Social Security Act a married woman whose husband retires or becomes disabled is granted benefits if she has a minor or other dependent child in her care. A divorced

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woman whose former husband retires or becomes disabled does not receive such benefits. The issue in the present case is whether this difference in the statutory treatment of married and divorced women is permissible under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.1

I

Section 202(b)(1) of the Social Security Act, 49 Stat. 623, as added and amended, 42 U.S.C. § 402(b)(1) (1970 ed. and Supp. V), provides for the payment of "wife's insurance benefits."2 To qualify under this section, [97 S.Ct. 433] a woman must be the

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wife or "divorce wife"3 of an individual entitled to old-age or disability benefits. Then, assuming that she meets the other statutory requirements, the woman is eligible to receive a monthly payment if she

has attained age 62 or (in the case of a wife) has in her care (individually or jointly with [her husband]) a child entitled to a child's insurance benefit. . . .

42 U.S.C. § 402(b)(1)(B) (emphasis supplied). As the italicized phrase indicates, a woman under 62 who has in her care an entitled child4 must currently be married to the wage earner in order to be eligible to receive benefits. A divorced woman receives monthly payments if she is 62 or over and her ex-husband retires or becomes disabled, but if she is under 62, she receives no benefits even if she has a young or disabled child in her care.5

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The appellee, Helen De Castro, was divorced from her husband in 1968, after more than 20 years of marriage. She cares for a disabled child, who is eligible for and receives child's insurance benefits under the Act. In May, 1971, her former husband applied for and later was granted old-age insurance benefits. Mrs. De Castro applied for wife's insurance benefits shortly thereafter. At the time of her application, she was 56 years old. Her application was denied by the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare because no wife's benefits are payable to a divorced wife under 62 years of age.

Mrs. De Castro then filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, seeking judicial review of the Secretary's decision. Her complaint alleged that § 202(b)(1)(b) of the Social Security Act "operates to arbitrarily discriminate against divorced wives," and [97 S.Ct. 434] prayed for an order directing the Secretary to pay benefits to her, a declaration that § 202(b)(1)(b) is unconstitutional, and an injunction against that section's application.

A three-judge court was convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2281, 2282. The court considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment and granted the relief prayed for in the complaint, holding that the wife's benefits provision "invidiously discriminates against divorced wives . . . in violation of the Fifth Amendment." De Castro v. Weinberger, 403 F.Supp. 23, 30. Central to the court's ruling was its determination that

there is no rational basis for concluding that a married wife having a dependent child in her care has a greater economic need than a divorced wife caring for such a child.

Id. at 28. The Secretary appealed directly to this Court under 28 U.S.C. § 1252, and we noted probable jurisdiction, 425 U.S. 957.

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II

The basic principle that must govern an assessment of any constitutional challenge to a law providing for governmental payments of monetary benefits is well established. Governmental decisions to spend money to improve the general public welfare in one way and not another are "not confided to the courts. The discretion belongs to Congress, unless the choice is clearly wrong, a display of arbitrary power, not an exercise of judgment." Helvering v. Davis, 301 U.S. 619, 640. In enacting legislation of this kind, a government does not deny equal protection

merely because the classifications made by its laws are imperfect. If the classification has some "reasonable basis," it does not offend the Constitution simply because the classification "is not made with mathematical nicety or because in practice it results in some inequality."

Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, 485.

To be sure, the standard by which legislation such as this must be judged "is not a toothless one," Mathews v. Lucas, 427 U.S. 495, 510. But the challenged statute is entitled to a strong presumption of constitutionality.

So long as its judgments are rational, and not invidious, the legislature's efforts to tackle the problems of the poor and the needy are not subject to a constitutional straitjacket.

Jefferson v. Hackney, 406 U.S. 535, 546. It is with this principle in mind that we consider the specific constitutional issue presented by this litigation.

The old-age and disability insurance aspects of the Social Security system do not purport to be general public assistance laws that simply pay money to those who need it most. That was not the predominant purpose of these benefit provisions when they were enacted or when they were amended. Rather, the primary objective was to provide workers and

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their families with basic protection against hardships created by the loss of earnings due to illness or old age.6

[97 S.Ct. 435] The wife's insurance benefit at issue here is consistent with this overriding legislative aim: it enables a married woman already burdened with dependent children to meet the additional need created when her husband reaches old age or becomes disabled. Accordingly, the District Court's observation that many divorced women receive inadequate

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child support payment, while undoubtedly true, is hardly in point. The same can be said of the District Court's statement that

there is no rational basis for concluding that a married wife having a dependent children her care has a greater economic need than a divorced wife caring for such a child.

For whatever relevance these observations might have in a case involving a constitutional attack on a statute that gave monetary benefits to women based on their general overall need, that is not this case.

Section 202(b)(1)(B) of the Act addresses the particular consequences for his family of a wage earner's old age or disability. Congress could rationally have decided that the resultant loss of family income, the extra expense that often attends illness and old age, and the consequent disruption in the family's economic wellbeing that may occur when the husband stops working justify monthly payments to a wife who together with her husband must still care for a dependent child.

Indeed, Congress took note of exactly these kinds of factors when it amended the Social Security Act in 1958. Between 1950 and 1958, wives under retirement age with dependent children received benefits only when their husbands became entitled to old-age insurance payments....

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