Michael M. v. Superior Court of Sonoma Cnty.

Decision Date23 March 1981
Docket NumberNo. 79-1344,79-1344
Citation101 S.Ct. 1200,450 U.S. 464,67 L.Ed.2d 437
PartiesMICHAEL M., Petitioner, v. (California, Real Party in Interest)
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Petitioner, then a 171/2-year-old male, was charged with violating California's "statutory rape" law, which defines unlawful sexual intercourse as "an act of sexual intercourse accomplished with a female not the wife of the perpetrator, where the female is under the age of 18 years." Prior to trial, petitioner sought to set aside the information on both state and federal constitutional grounds, asserting that the statute unlawfully discriminated on the basis of gender since men alone where criminally liable thereunder. The trial court and the California Court of Appeal denied relief, and on review the California Supreme Court upheld the statute.

Held: The judgment is affirmed. Pp. 468-476; 481-487.

25 Cal.3d 608, 159 Cal.Rptr. 340, 601 P.2d 572, affirmed.

Justice REHNQUIST, joined by Chief Justice BURGER, Justice STEWART, and Justice POWELL, concluded that the statute does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 468-476.

(a) Gender-based classifications are not "inherently suspect" so as to be subject to so-called "strict scrutiny," but will be upheld if they bear a "fair and substantial relationship" to legitimate state ends. Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71, 92 S.Ct. 251, 30 L.Ed.2d 225. Because the Equal Protection Clause does not "demand that a statute necessarily apply equally to all persons" or require "things which are different in fact . . . to be treated in law as though they were the same," Rinaldi v. Yeager, 384 U.S. 305, 309, 86 S.Ct. 1497, 1499, 16 L.Ed.2d 577, a statute will be upheld where the gender classification is not invidious, but rather realistically reflects the fact that the sexes are not similarly situated in certain circumstances. Pp. 468-469.

(b) One of the purposes of the California statute in which the State has a strong interest is the prevention of illegitimate teenage pregnancies. The statute protects women from sexual intercourse and pregnancy at an age when the physical, emotional, and psychological consequences are particularly severe. Because virtually all of the significant harmful and identifiable consequences of teenage pregnancy fall on the female, a legislature acts well within it authority when it elects to punish only the participant who, by nature, suffers few of the consequences of his conduct. Pp. 470-473.

(c) There is no merit in petitioner's contention that the statute is impermissibly underinclusive and must, in order to pass judicial scrutiny, be broadened so as to hold the female as criminally liable as the male. The relevant inquiry is not whether the statute is drawn as precisely as it might have been, but whether the line chosen by the California Legislature is within constitutional limitations. In any event, a gender-neutral statute would frustrate the State's interest in effective enforcement since a female would be less likely to report violations of the statute if she herself would be subject to prosecution. The Equal Protection Clause does not require a legislature to enact a statute so broad that it may well be incapable of enforcement. Pp. 473-474.

(d) Nor is the statute impermissibly overbroad because it makes unlawful sexual intercourse with prepubescent females, incapable of becoming pregnant. Aside from the fact that the statute could be justified on the grounds that very young females are particularly susceptible to physical injury from sexual intercourse, the Constitution does not require the California Legislature to limit the scope of the statute to older teenagers and exclude young girls. P. 475.

(e) And the statute is not unconstitutional as applied to petitioner who, like the girl involved, was under 18 at the time of sexual intercourse, on the asserted ground that the statute presumes in such circumstances that the male is the culpable aggressor. The statute does not rest on such an assumption, but instead is an attempt to prevent illegitimate teenage pregnancy by providing an additional deterrent for men. The age of the man is irrelevant since young men are as capable as older men of inflicting the harm sought to be prevented. P. 475.

BLACKMUN, J., concluded that the California statutory rape law is a sufficiently reasoned and constitutional effort to control at its inception the problem of teenage pregnancies, and that the California Supreme Court's judgment should be affirmed on the basis of the applicable test for gender-based classifications as set forth in Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71, 76, 92 S.Ct. 251, 254, 30 L.Ed.2d 225, and Craig v. Boren, 429 U.S. 190, 197, 97 S.Ct. 451, 456, 50 L.Ed.2d 397. Pp. 481-487.

REHNQUIST, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which BURGER, C. J., and STEWART and POWELL, JJ., joined.

STEWART, J., filed a concurring opinion post, p. 476.

BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment post, p. 481.

BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which WHITE and MARSHALL, JJ., joined post, p. 488.

STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion post, p. 496.

Gregory F. Jilka, Rohnert Park, Cal., for petitioner.

Sandy R. Kriegler, Los Angeles, Cal., for respondent.

Justice REHNQUIST announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE, Justice STEWART, and Justice POWELL joined.

The question presented in this case is whether California's "statutory rape" law, § 261.5 of the Cal.Penal Code Ann. (West Supp.1981), violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Section 261.5 defines unlawful sexual intercourse as "an act of sexual intercourse accomplished with a female not the wife of the perpetrator, where the female is under the age of 18 years." The statute thus makes men alone criminally liable for the act of sexual intercourse.

In July 1978, a complaint was filed in the Municipal Court of Sonoma County, Cal., alleging that petitioner, then a 171/2-year-old male, had had unlawful sexual intercourse with a female under the age of 18, in violation of § 261.5. The evidence, adduced at a preliminary hearing showed that at approximately midnight on June 3, 1978, petitioner and two friends approached Sharon, a 161/2-year-old female, and her sister as they waited at a bus stop. Petitioner and Sharon who had already been drinking, moved away from the others and began to kiss. After being struck in the face for rebuffing petitioner's initial advances, Sharon submitted to sexual intercourse with petitioner. Prior to trial, petitioner sought to set aside the information on both state and federal constitutional grounds, asserting that § 261.5 unlawfully discriminated on the basis of gender. The trial court and the California Court of Appeal denied petitioner's request for relief and petitioner sought review in the Supreme Court of California.

The Supreme Court held that "section 261.5 discriminates on the basis of sex because only females may be victims, and only males may violate the section." 25 Cal.3d 608, 611, 159 Cal.Rptr. 340, 342, 601 P.2d 572, 574. The court then subjected the classification to "strict scrutiny," stating that it must be justified by a compelling state interest. It found that the classification was "supported not by mere social convention but by the immutable physiological fact that it is the female exclusively who can become pregnant." Ibid. Canvassing "the tragic human costs of illegitimate teenage pregnancies," including the large number of teenage abortions, the increased medical risk associated with teenage pregnancies, and the social consequences of teenage childbearing, the court concluded that the State has a compelling interest in preventing such pregnancies. Because males alone can "physiologically cause the result which the law properly seeks to avoid," the court further held that the gender classification was readily justified as a means of identifying offender and victim. For the reasons stated below, we affirm the judgment of the California Supreme Court.1 As is evident from our opinions, the Court has had some difficulty in agreeing upon the proper approach and analysis in cases involving challenges to gender-based classifications. The issues posed by such challenges range from issues of standing, see Orr v. Orr, 440 U.S. 268, 99 S.Ct. 1102, 59 L.Ed.2d 306 (1979), to the appropriate standard of judicial review for the substantive classification. Unlike the California Supreme Court, we have not held that gender-based classifications are "inherently suspect" and thus we do not apply so-called "strict scrutiny" to those classifications. See Stanton v. Stanton, 421 U.S. 7, 95 S.Ct. 1373, 43 L.Ed.2d 688 (1975). Our cases have held, however, that the traditional minimum rationality test takes on a somewhat "sharper focus" when gender-based classifications are challenged. See Craig v. Boren, 429 U.S. 190, 210 n.*, 97 S.Ct. 451, 464, 50 L.Ed.2d 397 (1976) (POWELL, J., concurring). In Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71, 92 S.Ct. 251, 30 L.Ed.2d 225 (1971), for example, the Court stated that a gender-based classification will be upheld if it bears a "fair and substantial relationship" to legitimate state ends, while in Craig v. Boren, supra, 429 U.S. at 197, 97 S.Ct. at 457, the Court restated the test to require the classification to bear a "substantial relationship" to "important governmental objectives."

Underlying these decisions is the principle that a legislature may not "make overbroad generalizations based on sex which are entirely unrelated to any differences between men and women or which demean the ability or social status of the affected class." Parham v. Hughes, 441 U.S. 347, 354, 99 S.Ct. 1742, 60 L.Ed.2d 269 (1979) (plurality opinion of STEWART, J.). But because the Equal Protection Clause does not "demand that a statute necessarily apply...

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