Reed v. Reed: Striking Down Sex Discrimination

Important Supreme Court Case: Sex Discrimination and the 14th Amendment

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1993
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 1993. Ron Sachs / Getty Images

In 1971, Reed v. Reed became the first U.S. Supreme Court case to declare sex discrimination a violation of the 14th Amendment. In Reed v. Reed, the Court held that an Idaho law's unequal treatment of men and women based on sex when selecting administrators of estates was a violation of the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.

Also known as: REED V. REED, 404 U.S. 71 (1971)

Fast Facts: Reed v. Reed

  • Case Argued: October 19, 1971
  • Decision Issued: November 22, 1971
  • Petitioner: Sally Reed (appellant)
  • Respondent: Cecil Reed (appellee)
  • Key Questions: Did the Idaho Probate Code violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by refusing to let Sally Reed be named administrator of her son’s estate based solely on gender?
  • Unanimous Decision: Justices Burger, Douglas, Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall, and Blackmon
  • Ruling: The Idaho Probate Code specifying that "males must be preferred to females" in appointing administrators of estates was found to be in violation of the 14th Fourteenth Amendment and declared unconstitutional.

The Idaho Law

Reed v. Reed examined Idaho probate law, which deals with the administration of an estate after a person's death. The Idaho statutes automatically gave mandatory preference to males over females when there were two competing relatives to administer a deceased person's estate.

  • Idaho Code Section 15-312 listed the classes of persons "entitled to administer the estate of one who dies intestate." In order of preference, they were 1. Surviving spouse 2. Children 3. The father or mother 4. The brothers 5. The sisters 6. The grandchildren…and so on through next of kin and other legally competent persons.
  • Idaho Code Section 15-314 stated that if there were several persons equally entitled under section 15-312 to administer the estate, such as two persons in category 3 (the father or the mother), then "males must be preferred to females, and relatives of the whole to those of the half blood."

The Legal Issue

Did the Idaho probate law violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment? The Reeds were a married couple who had separated. Their adopted son died of suicide without a will, and an estate of less than $1000. Both Sally Reed (mother) and Cecil Reed (father) filed petitions seeking appointment as administrator of the son's estate. The law gave preference to Cecil, based on the controlling Idaho statutes that said males must be preferred. The language of the state code was that "males must be preferred to females." The case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Result

In the Reed v. Reed opinion, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that "the Idaho Code cannot stand in the face of the 14th Amendment's command that no State deny the equal protection of the laws to any person within its jurisdiction." The decision was without dissent.
Reed v. Reed was an important case for feminism because it recognized sex discrimination as a violation of the Constitution. Reed v. Reed became the basis of many more decisions that protected men and women from gender discrimination.

Idaho's mandatory provision preferring males to females reduced the probate court workload by eliminating the need to hold a hearing to determine who was better qualified to administer an estate. The Supreme Court concluded that the Idaho law did not achieve the state's objective - the objective of reducing the probate court workload - "in a manner consistent with the command of the Equal Protection Clause." The "dissimilar treatment" based on sex for persons in the same class of section 15-312 (in this case, mothers and fathers) was unconstitutional.

Feminists working for the Equal Rights Amendment(ERA) noted that it took more than a century for the Court to recognize that the 14th Amendment protected women's rights.

Fourteenth Amendment

The 14th Amendment, providing for equal protection under laws, has been interpreted to mean that people in similar conditions must be treated equally. “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges…of citizens of the United States…nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” It was adopted in 1868, and the Reed v. Reed case was the first time the Supreme Court applied it to women as a group.

More Background

Richard Reed, then 19 years old, committed suicide using his father's rifle in March of 1967. Richard was the adopted son of Sally Reed and Cecil Reed, who had separated. Sally Reed had custody of Richard in his early years, and then Cecil had custody of Richard as a teenager, against the wishes of Sally Reed. Both Sally Reed and Cecil Reed sued for the right to be the administrator of Richard's estate, which had a value of less than $1000. The Probate Court appointed Cecil as administrator, based on Section 15-314 of Idaho's code specifying that "males must be preferred to females," and the court did not consider the issue of capabilities of each parent.

Other Discrimination Not at Issue

Idaho Code section 15-312 also gave preference to brothers over sisters, even listing them in two separate classes (see numbers 4 and 5 of section 312). Reed v. Reed explained in a footnote that this part of the statute was not at issue because it did not affect Sally and Cecil Reed. Since the parties had not challenged it, the Supreme Court did not rule on it in this case. Therefore, Reed v. Reed struck down the dissimilar treatment of women and men who were in the same group under section 15-312, mothers and fathers, but did not go so far as to strike down the preference of brothers as a group above sisters.

A Notable Attorney

One of the lawyers for appellant Sally Reed was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who later became the second female justice on the Supreme Court. She called it a "turning point case." The other chief lawyer for the appellant was Allen R. Derr. Derr was the son of Hattie Derr, Idaho's first female state Senator (1937).


The sitting Supreme Court Justices, who found without dissent for the appellant, were  Hugo L. Black, Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan Jr., Warren E. Burger (who wrote the Court's decision), William O. Douglas, John Marshall Harlan II, Thurgood Marshall, Potter Stewart, Byron R. White.

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Your Citation
Napikoski, Linda. "Reed v. Reed: Striking Down Sex Discrimination." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Napikoski, Linda. (2021, February 16). Reed v. Reed: Striking Down Sex Discrimination. Retrieved from Napikoski, Linda. "Reed v. Reed: Striking Down Sex Discrimination." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).