Orr v. Orr

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440 U.S. 268 (1979), argued 27 Nov. 1978, decided 5 Mar. 1979 by vote of 6 to 3; Brennan for the Court, Blackmun and Stevens concurring, Rehnquist (with Burger) and Powell in dissent. Orr, a divorced male, challenged the alimony statutes of Alabama. He argued that because the statutory scheme allowed alimony orders only against males, it amounted to unconstitutional sex discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

The dissenters focused strictly on the standing question pointing out that Mr. Orr probably had nothing to gain from winning this case: his wife was the needy spouse and he was the spouse able to pay support. The possibility that Alabama would abolish alimony in order to render the laws neutral with regard to gender was, they said, merely fanciful.

The Court majority addressed the standing question by insisting that any person who bears a gender-based financial burden must have standing to challenge it. Justice John Paul Stevens's separate concurring opinion was devoted entirely to elaboration of this point.

The majority applied the Craig v. Boren (1976) test to invalidate this statutory scheme. The state proffered three goals of the law: to structure family life, with wife at home and husband providing support; to cushion the cost of divorce for needy wives; and to compensate needy wives for economic discrimination attendant upon the traditional marital role. The Court declared the first goal invalid in this era but said that the second two were valid and important. The law, however, failed the second half of the Craig test: it was not “substantially related” to these goals. There was no need for blanket gender discrimination, since every alimony award came out of individualized hearings in which any needy spouse could be identified. Thus, both valid goals could be satisfied by a gender-neutral law.

Leslie Friedman Goldstein

Subjects: Law.

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