Michael M. v. Superior Court of Sonoma County

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450 U.S. 464 (1981), argued 4 Nov. 1980, decided 23 Mar. 1981 by vote of 5 to 4; Rehnquist for plurality including Burger, Stewart, and Powell; Stewart concurring, Blackmun concurring in judgment; Brennan (with White and Marshall) and Stevens dissenting. This case presented an equal protection challenge to the statutory rape law of California. Under that law, when two people between the ages fourteen and seventeen engaged in heterosexual intercourse, the male was guilty of statutory rape but the female was not. The California Supreme Court, applying strict scrutiny, had nonetheless upheld the law.

The U.S. Supreme Court plurality applied the Craig v. Boren (1976) test of intermediate scrutiny and upheld the law. The prevention of teenage pregnancy, said the plurality, was an important governmental interest. This interest was “substantially furthered” by this statute, since females and males were not (especially without the “equaling” effects of this law) similarly situated with regard to the burdens of pregnancy. Moreover, the plurality accepted California's convincing argument that a statutory rape law that was neutral with regard to gender would be unenforceable because both culpable parties would be afraid to report the offense. In concurrence Justice Potter Stewart asserted that a law may reasonably treat the sexes differently where, as here, they are not similarly situated.

Justice Harry Blackmun's decisive fifth vote endorsed the plurality's Craig reasoning but complained about the Court majority's earlier insensitivity to pregnant women when it had refused to require Medicaid coverage for abortions. He added lengthy excerpts from the trial testimony that seemed to show that this case involved a forcible, but difficult to prove, rape.

The dissents, too, applied Craig but found that this statute failed the test. Justice William J. Brennan argued that California had not proved that its law was a greater deterrent to teenage pregnancy than a gender-neutral law would be. Justice John Paul Stevens suggested that a law might punish whichever sex partner was the aggressor, or the more willing, but that to punish only one of two equally willing participants was irrational.

Leslie Friedman Goldstein

Subjects: Law.

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