Frontiero v. Richardson

Following is the case brief for Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677 (1973).

Case Summary of Frontiero v. Richardson:

  • A federal law provided automatic benefits for the wives of military men, but not for husbands of military women.  A woman in the U.S. Air Force sued to enjoin enforcement of the law, arguing that it was unconstitutionally discriminatory.
  • The District Court denied the injunction, finding the law constitutional.
  • On direct appeal to the Supreme Court, the Court reversed.  The Court held that the law violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.  The Court reasoned that laws that discriminate based on gender are inherently suspect and require heightened scrutiny.

Frontiero v. Richardson Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Federal law provided that the wives of men in the United States armed forces automatically received certain benefits as “dependents” of their husbands.  Husbands of women in the armed forces, however, had to first prove that they were dependent upon their wives for over one-half of their support before they could receive benefits as “dependents.”

Sharron Frontiero, a lieutenant in the United States Air Force, sought dependent benefits for her husband.  Because she could not show that her husband relied on her for over one-half of his support, her request was denied.  Frontiero then sued in federal court, seeking an injunction against enforcement of the federal law.  She argued that the difference in treatment based on sex was unconstitutional discrimination in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

The District Court for the Middle District of Alabama rejected Frontiero’s contention and held that the federal law in question was constitutional.  The District Court speculated that the dissimilar treatment of the sexes was because most military personnel were male, and thus it was administratively more efficient to give dependency benefits automatically to the wives of servicemen.

Procedural History:

Frontiero sued for a permanent injunction of the law in Federal District Court.  After the District Court denied the injunction, the Supreme Court took a direct appeal.

Issue and Holding:

Did a federal law violate the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment by having different requirements for military spousal benefits based on whether the serviceperson was male or female?  Yes.


The judgment of the District Court for the Middle District of Alabama is reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

A law that discriminates based on gender is inherently suspect and requires heightened scrutiny; thus, a law that requires dissimilar treatment of men and women who are similarly situated solely for reasons of administrative convenience violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.


Writing the opinion of the Court with a plurality of justices, Justice Brennan began by noting that discrimination based on sex has unfortunately endured throughout history.  Although conditions have improved for women, society still has far to go with regard to providing women equal justice under the law.  Accordingly, some heightened scrutiny, beyond rational basis scrutiny, is required because laws that discriminate based on sex are inherently suspect.

Under that heightened scrutiny analysis, the Court held that the federal law at issue is unconstitutional as a violation of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.  The rationale of “administrative convenience” cannot justify the law’s discrimination based on sex.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Stewart):

The statute at issue is an “invidious” type of discrimination that violates the Constitution.

Concurring Opinion (Powell):

The question of whether to apply heightened scrutiny to statutes that discriminate based on sex should be left for another day.  The present case can be decided based on the reasoning of the Court’s decision in Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71 (1971), without finding such classifications by sex inherently suspect.  In addition, the Equal Rights Amendment is currently being considered, which would be resolve the issue through normal democratic means.

Dissenting Opinion (Rehnquist):

Justice Rehnquist dissented based upon the reasoning of the lower court.


Frontiero v. Richardson set the stage for the Court’s current standard of applying “intermediate scrutiny” — which is higher than rational basis but lower than strict scrutiny — on laws discriminating on the basis of gender.  The mention of the Equal Rights Amendment in the plurality opinion and Justice Powell’s concurrence is a interesting vestige of the 1970s.  Of course, the Equal Rights Amendment never became law.

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