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Craig v. Boren

Significance

That the gender classification in the laws did not serve "important governmental objectives" in order to be exempt from the Equal Protection Clause, nor did the state's power to regulate alcoholic beverages exempt it from this clause.

In the 1970s, the state of Oklahoma allowed the sale of what is known as 3.2 percent beer to individuals under the age of 21. This was justified in that the beer did not necessarily cause intoxication since the percentage of actual alcohol was relatively low. The Oklahoma statute governing these sales made it legal for males over the age of 21, and females over the age of 18 to purchase this beer.

On 20 December 1972, Curtis Craig, a male between the ages of 18 and 21 and Ms. Whitener, a licensed 3.2 percent beer vendor, brought suit in the District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. They sought Craig's exemption from Oklahoma against the enforcement of this law on the grounds that it discriminated against men between the ages of 18 and 21 and was therefore unconstitutional. A three-judge court dismissed their case, deciding the law was constitutional.

Craig and Whitener appealed directly to the Supreme Court, since the suit questioned state law. On 20 December 1976, the Court reversed the district court's decision. The opinion was written by Justice Brennan and supported by White, Marshall, Powell, Stevens, and Blackmun. By the time the suit had reached the Supreme Court, Craig had reached the age of 21 and could legally drink per the Oklahoma law. Therefore, the Court found his suit moot or insignificant since the law no longer affected him and he had only sought relief from the law. However, Whitener could seek relief from the law since she was subject to the loss of her vendor license for violating it.

In order for a gender-based classification such as the one in Oklahoma to be exempt from the Equal Protection Clause, the state needed to show that the classification served key government goals such as the protection of its citizens. Oklahoma claimed that their goal in developing the law was to improve traffic safety. This was based on statistics that showed that .18 percent of females and 2 percent of males ages 18-21 were arrested for driving while under the influence of alcohol. The majority of the justices found this to be insignificant, since the statutes affected a much larger number of citizens than had actually been shown to be delinquent. In addition, 3.2 percent beer was not found to be necessarily intoxicating, so the statistic did not necessarily apply to the statute. Finally, the state's claim to broad power in controlling the sale, purchase, and consumption of alcohol within Oklahoma under the Twenty-first Amendment did not allow it to discriminate in these areas.

Justices Burger and Rehnquist disagreed with the ruling for different reasons. Burger felt the vendor should not be allowed to "assert the constitutional rights of her customers." Rehnquist thought the state had a rational reason for the statute and should therefore be constitutional under the "rational basis" test of equal protection. In any case, the state of Oklahoma, along with other states with similar gender-based alcohol laws, needed to review and revise their statutes.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Craig v. Boren - Significance, Further Readings