To withstand scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause, classifications by gender must serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to achievement of those objectives.
In a divorce decree dissolving their marriage in Alabama, William Orr was directed to pay alimony to Lillian Orr pursuant to Alabama statutes, which provided that husbands, but not wives, may be required to pay alimony upon divorce. Subsequently, Lillian brought a contempt proceeding in the Circuit Court of Lee County, Alabama, alleging that William was in arrears in his alimony payments. In the contempt proceeding, William did not claim that he was entitled to an alimony award from his former wife, but submitted a motion requesting that Alabama's alimony statutes be declared unconstitutional. After the Circuit Court denied the motion and entered a money judgment against William covering back alimony, he appealed to the Court of Civil Appeals of Alabama relying solely on his federal constitutional claim. The Court of Civil Appeals sustained the constitutionality of the Alabama statutes. The Supreme Court of Alabama, although initially granting William’s petition for writ of certiorari to review the Court of Civil Appeals' decision, thereafter, quashed the writ as having been improvidently granted. William sought further review in the United States Supreme Court.
Were the Alabama statutes in question unconstitutional?
The United States Supreme Court found Alabama's alimony statutes unconstitutional, concluding that the Alabama statutory scheme of imposing alimony obligations on husbands but not wives violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court noted that to withstand scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause, classifications by gender had to serve important governmental objectives and be substantially related to the achievement of those objectives. According to the Court, the gender-based distinction in these statutes was gratuitous. Thus, the Court reversed the judgment of the state courts and remanded the cause for further proceedings. The Court noted that its disposition left the state courts free to decide any questions of substantive state law not passed upon in the instant litigation.