Hoyt v. Equal Protection Clause
April 12, 2018
A Supreme Court case decided before 1971 that dealt with gender and would have benefitted from the application of the Equal Protection Clause is Hoyt v Florida in 1961. At this time the Equal Protection Clause was not extended to women of any color as a result of the ideology of Romantic Paternalism. As a result, women were prohibited and discouraged from serving on juries until the 1970s. In the next fifteen years and with the help of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, women’s rights started changing, and for the better.
Before 1971, the Equal Protection Clause had not been extended to women in that it was meant to give newly freed black males rights after the Civil Rights Act was introduced in 1964. There are many cases that would have benefited from the application of this clause including, Hoyt v. Florida in 1961. The outcome of this case would have been drastically different had it not occurred until after 1971 when Reed v. Reed took place. This case was the turning point for women’s rights in that it was the first case where the courts applied the Equal Protection Clause in a woman’s favor. The idea of Romantic Paternalism played a huge role in women’s limitations and why this clause was not applied to women earlier. After 1971, many court’s rulings drastically shifted to play in the favor of women which was the beginning of a new time.
Prior to the 1970’s, most of the women’s limitations were because of the ideology of Romantic Paternalism. It was the general belief that women were the weaker sex compared to men and therefore should be “protected.” Although meant for protection, it did more of the opposite. At this time, women were usually expected to stay at home mothers and were limited on their rights because the communities did not want to “burden” the women with other responsibilities. This idea and law did not allow women to vote, hold an office position, excluded from most education, and could not serve on juries. This was based on that a woman needed to be protected from criminal trials and would not make adequate jurors. As a result, women were prohibited and discouraged from serving on juries until the 1970s.
The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment states, “No state shall deny any person within its jurisdiction equal protection under the law.” Initially, this was only meant to apply to the newly freed African Americans and not women. The courts made it clear that the rights in the 14th Amendment guaranteed for black men concerning jury membership did not pertain to women of any color. As political rights, the courts did not see a Constitutional basis for extending the right to women before Congress granted women voting rights.
In 1961, Gwendolyn Hoyt was convicted of the second-degree murder of her husband, Clarence Hoyt. According to Clare Cushman, “She had suffered mental and physical abuse in her marriage and showed neurotic if not psychotic behavior” (pg. 30)
The jury found her guilty in just twenty-five minutes Justice Harlan sentenced her to thirty years of hard labor. She challenged Florida’s jury selection process by stating that it infringed her rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Included in her complaint, it was mentioned that fact that “women jurors would have been more understanding or compassionate than men in assessing the quality… and her defense of ‘temporary insanity’.” Florida’s statutory system discouraged women from service in that women would only be registered for jury selection if they personally signed up whereas men were automatically registered. This goes back to the idea of Romantic Paternalism in which women already had the responsibilities at home and since the government did not want to burden them with more, it was up to each individual woman to register themselves for jury service.
As part of Justice Harlan’s opinion as stated in the Supreme Court Decisions and Women’s Rights, “The statute did not exclude women from jury service by merely spared then the obligation in recognition of their place at the center of the home and family life” (pg. 31).
According to Oyez, “The Court held that the statute was based on a reasonable classification and was therefore constitutional.” It was concluded that the case was different from cases involving racial discrimination because unequal gender representatives on a jury “carried no constitutional significance.” Had the Equal Protection Clause applied to women at this time, Hoyt may have been allotted a second trial including a jury that fairly representation of both genders. In the years to come, Ruth Bader Ginsburg will take the plunge in trying to approach the Fourteenth Amendment by arguing sex like race that presents no correlation to a person’s ability and should be treated as intense as race-based discrimination, under strict scrutiny. From Notorious RBG:
“The Hoyt case made plain that the court hadn’t progressed much since the 1948 opinion in which Felix Frankfurter—the same judge who refused to hire RBG as a clerk—gravely acknowledged that letting women freely bartend could ‘give rise to moral and social problems'” (pg. 53).
Ten years later, in Reed v. Reed, the Supreme Court’s ruling was a start of a change in women’s rights in that it was the first case that extended the Equal Protection Clause to women. This became a turning point for women and played in their favor in many cases on forward. The case of Reed v. Reed is where both Sally and her ex-husband, Cecil, wanted to be the administrator of their deceased sons’ estate. Under the Probate Code in Idaho, males were preferred to females, and in this case, Cecil Reed was appointed as the administrator. After going through sixteen attorneys, Sally finally found one that would appeal the ruling and eventually take the case to the Supreme Court. The Majority opinion of Chief Justice Burger was: “To give a mandatory preference to members of either sex over the other, merely to accomplish the elimination of hearings on the merits… forbidden by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The Supreme Court was persuaded in this case by the fact that Justice Burger observed that many estates were often administered by widows because women usually lived longer than men. The courts’ preference for men was the purpose of reducing legal action. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a volunteer attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), really tried to focus on the need for gender discrimination to be viewed under strict scrutiny but the final opinion only applied the rationality standard. According to Cushman, if the Supreme Court had applied strict scrutiny to Reed v. Reed, “It would have sent a signal to the lower courts that any legislation that discriminated on the basis of gender was invalid” (pg. 44). As a result, resolutions to any challenge of discriminatory legislation would have to be on a case by case basis. Although not the outcome that RBG wanted, it was definitely a start of the change to come.
Some Ruth Bader Ginsburg women’s rights cases included Taylor v. Louisiana, Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, and the “Trojan horse case” Craig v. Boren. RBG stated, “Women’s easy exemption from jury service is ultimately harmful to them” (Cushman, pg. 31). In Taylor v. Louisiana, Billy Taylor was indicted on kidnapping charges. He filed a complaint that “Women were systematically excluded, which denied him a right to trial by a jury of his peers” (Oyez). His reasoning probably the same as Gwendolyn Hoyt, in which she thought that having women on her jury would affect the ruling in that they tend to be “more understanding or compassionate”. In his case, out of 175 potential prospective jurors, none were women. As the years went by, more and more women were in the workforce, including those with children. Therefore, women were straying further and further away from being centered on their life at home. The courts stated that it was unjustified to suggest that it would be a hardship for women to participate in jury service. This is why the courts ruled 8-1 on Taylor’s side. Justice White’s opinions stated, “A jury made up of a representative cross-selection of the community is an essential component of the Sixth Amendment.” Although not stated, this was also important to the Fourteenth Amendment and Equal Protection Clause in that the courts were starting to see women and men as equals. There was still plenty of work to be done.
The next case is Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975). This case is about a couple, where the female died while in childbirth but who also brought in the main source of income. The husband then applied for Social Security benefits but only the son was eligible to receive the benefits. At this time, Social Security was framed on the assumption that “Only male workers financially support their families and only women take care of young children” (Cushman, pg. 70). Under this law, when a female worker died, her widower would not be entitled to her benefits. Wiesenfeld sued, claiming that he was denied benefits on that basis of his gender which violated the Fifth Amendment. The district court held that this was unconstitutional, but the Federal Court had not yet established strict scrutiny for gender. The federal court made the conclusion that gender was irrational in that the statute was about a parent being able to stay home with a child. Although the court did not agree with the gender classification, the majority opinion was still 8-0 in Wiesenfeld’s favor in that, “It is no less important for a child to be cared for by its sole surviving parent when that parent is male rather than female.”
The last case, Craig v. Boren (1976), was all part of Ruth Bader Ginsburg strategic plan. This case consisted of the Oklahoma State law prohibiting men from buying beer under the age of 21 but allowed women to buy beer at age 18. The appellants argued that it was discrimination against men, but it was more than that. Under the surface, there was this unspoken idea that girls were more responsible and more trusted since they were able to purchase beer at a younger age and therefore should be “protected”. This case is very important, especially concerning the Equal Protection Clause. The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment prohibits states from denying any person within the jurisdiction the equal protection of the law. So, based on context, this SHOULD include women but unfortunately at the time it did not. All of this changed after RBG repeatedly told the judge that discrimination against men also discriminates against women. On December 20, 1976, nearly three months following the oral argument, the court’s decision was reversed, and 7-2 majority ruled that Oklahoma’s beer law constitutes discrimination against men ages 18-20 in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. The court’s decision to reserve the ruling was the first time a court had stated or implied that any discrimination based on gender should be reviewed with higher standards. Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that this was the first case that got the women right’s even though it was through the side door.
According to Cushman, “The Craig standard proved enduring. It has been cited routinely in constitutional sex discrimination cases ever since” (pg. 57). The cases played a significant role in women’s rights and still continue to do so. As the years went on a woman’s role kept evolving and is still changing. Although women’s rights on equality have come a long way since Hoyt v. Florida, there is still some room to grow in that there are still people who under certain circumstances, believe that women are the inferior sex and are not equal. The future of these cases should still be strong in which there are still some circumstances where women are facing inequalities based on their sex. Unequal pay is one of the bigger issues that some women face today.
In conclusion, there are many cases that could have benefited from the application of the Equal Protection Clause. In Hoyt v. Florida, it could have been the difference in a completely opposite ruling. Although Reed v. Reed was a starting point, there was still work to be done and RBG knew this. She had a plan to get the courts to view gender-based discrimination as intense as racial discrimination and therefore took on cases that would challenge the courts. Craig v. Boren was the Trojan case in that it was the first case that implied that gender discrimination should be viewed under strict scrutiny.
Clare Cushman, supreme court decisions and women’s rights: milestones to
equality (2 ed. 2011).
Hoyt v. Florida, Oyez, https://www.oyez.org/cases/1961/31 (last visited Apr 12, 2018).
Irin Carmon, Shana Knizhnik ; Kathleen Krull, Notorious RBG: the life and times of
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (2017).
Reed v. Reed, Oyez, https://www.oyez.org/cases/1971/70-4 (last visited Apr 15, 2018).
Taylor v. Louisiana, Oyez, https://www.oyez.org/cases/1974/73-5744 (last visited Apr
Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, Oyez, https://www.oyez.org/cases/1974/73-1892 (last visited
Apr 15, 2018).