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Stanton v. Stanton


Stanton v. Stanton followed Reed v. Reed (1971) in applying the standard of rationality to questions of preference for males. The latter had been the first case in which the Supreme Court directly challenged the issue of discrimination against females to the extent of declaring a state law invalid; with Stanton the Court solidified this stance. Together the cases helped usher in an era of increased attention to equal protection for women under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Thelma B. Stanton, who would become the appellant in Stanton v. Stanton, married James Lawrence Stanton, Jr., in Elko, Nevada, in February of 1951. Two years later, in February of 1953, they had a daughter they named Sherri Lyn; and in January of 1955, the Stantons had a son, Rick Arlund. The couple moved to Utah, and in 1960, when Sherri was seven years old and Rick five, the Stantons divorced. As part of the divorce proceedings in the District Court of Salt Lake County, the court awarded custody of the children to their mother and provided for alimony and child support as follows:

Defendant is ordered to pay to plaintiff the sum of $300.00 per month as child support and alimony, $100.00 per month for each child as child support and $100.00 per month as alimony, to be paid on or before the 1st day of each month through the office of the Salt Lake County Clerk.

When Thelma Stanton remarried, the court changed its decree to relieve her former husband James from continuing to make alimony payments; the stipulations as to child support, however, would remain in effect until the children reached majority. James also remarried, and continued making child-support payments-- until some time shortly after 12 February 1971, when Sherri became 18 years old. Two years later, in May of 1973, Thelma asked the divorce court to enter a judgment in her favor and against James for a variety of issues, particularly the support of the children during the period after each had attained the age of 18. The court, however, judged that on 12 February 1971, Sherri had attained her majority in accordance with Section 15-2-1 of Utah Code Annotated 1953. According to the Supreme Court, the latter is like many state statutes in having "little or no [available] legislative history," but seems to be based on an 1852 territorial act. It defines the "period of minority" thus: "The period of minority extends in males to the age of 21years and in females to that of 18 years; but all minors obtain their majority by marriage." Therefore, the divorce court denied Thelma Stanton's motion, ruling that the "defendant is not obligated to plaintiff for maintenance and support of Sherri Lyn Stanton since that date [12 February 1971]."

Thelma Stanton appealed to the Supreme Court of Utah. In her case before the state's highest court, she held that Section 15-2-1 was discriminatory, and denied due process and equal protection in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court responded that the statute did indeed treat males and females differently, but that differences in treatment were to be excused "so long as there is a reasonable basis for the classification, which is related to the purposes of the act, and it applies equally and uniformly to all persons within the class."

One might have assumed that a law which incorporated what the court called "old notions" would have established a lower age of majority for males than for females, not a higher one. But the establishment of a lower age of majority was based on the following ideas, in the court's words: "that generally it is the man's primary responsibility to provide a home and its essentials"; that "it is a salutary thing for [the man] to get a good education and/or training before he undertakes those responsibilities"; and that "girls tend generally to mature physically, emotionally and mentally before boys" and "they generally tend to marry earlier." Thus while a young male--in 1852, at least, if not in 1975--might be continuing his education in preparation for a career in which he would be expected to support a wife and family, a female might already be married and under the care of another male. On the basis of that logic, the Utah high court concluded that "there is no basis upon which we would be justified in concluding that the statute is so beyond a reasonable doubt in conflict with constitutional provisions that it should be stricken down as invalid." Therefore the law stood, and Thelma was entitled to support for Rick until he turned 21; but she was not entitled to support for Sherri after the latter turned 18.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Stanton v. Stanton - Significance, Challenging "old Notions", Dissent And A Postscript, Impact, Parental Responsibility, Further Readings