To withstand scrutiny under the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause, classifications by gender must serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to achievement of those objectives. Reduction of the disparity in economic condition between men and women caused by the long history of discrimination against women has been recognized as such an important governmental objective.
Under section 215 of the Social Security Act (codified as 42 USCS 415) prior to a 1972 amendment, the computation for old age insurance benefits was such that a woman obtained larger benefits than a man of the same age having the same earnings record. The 1972 amendment altered the formula for computing benefits so as to eliminate the previous distinction between men and women, but only as to men reaching the age of 62 in 1975 or later. After he had pursued his administrative remedies, a man who had reached the age of 62 before 1975, and who was dissatisfied with the amount of his benefits under section 215 as amended, brought an action in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York to challenge the constitutionality of section 215. The single-judge District Court held that the statutory scheme for determining old age benefits under section 215 violated the equal protection component of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment (413 F Supp 127).
Did the challenged classification violate Fifth Amendment equal protection?
The Court held that old-age benefit payments were not constitutionally immunized against alterations of the kind at issue in the case and that Congress was authorized to replace one constitutional computation formula with another and to make the new formula prospective only. The former version of the challenged statute operated directly to compensate women for past economic discrimination and was deliberately enacted to compensate women for the particular economic disabilities they suffered. The subsequent amendment of § 415 was not a Congressional admission that its previous policy was invidiously discriminatory. The retired male worker's Fifth Amendment rights were not violated by the prospective application of § 415, as the Constitution did not forbid statutory changes to have a beginning and thus to discriminate between the rights of an earlier and later time.