Zablocki v. Redhail, 434 U.S. 374 (1978)

Facts: Redhail, a Wisconsin resident, was denied a marriage license because of his failure to comply with a Wisconsin statute. However, under the statute, Redhail is unable to enter into a lawful marriage as long as he is unable to make child support payments. For two years, Redhail was unemployed and indigent.

Issue: Whether a Wisconsin statute that requires a certain class of residents to obtain a court order granting permission to marry is unconstitutional.

Procedural History: The US District Court held the statute unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause and enjoined its enforcement.

Wisconsin’s argument: The statute was intended to establish a mechanism whereby persons with support obligations to children from prior marriages could be counseled before they entered into new marital relationship and incurred further support obligations.

Holding: The statutory classification cannot be justified by the interests advanced in support of it. Affirmed.

Reasoning: The right to marry is of fundamental importance for all individuals. Loving v. Virginia. Additionally, if the “right to procreate means anything at all, it must imply some right to enter the only relationship in which the State of Wisconsin allows sexual relations legally to take place.” Reasonable regulations that do not significantly interfere with decisions to enter into the marital relationship may legitimately be imposed. However, the Wisconsin statute clearly does interfere directly and substantially with the right to marry.

Powell’s concurrence in the judgment: The majority sweeps too broadly in an area which traditionally has been subject to pervasive state regulation. Powell does not agree with the level of scrutiny and the lack of “any principled means for distinguishing between” regulations that “directly and substantially interfere” and “reasonable regulations that do not significantly interfere.” Powell advocates for an “intermediate scrutiny.”

Stevens concurrence in the judgment: Also agrees that the Court could have ruled more narrowly. There is a difference between classifications based on marital stauts and those that determine who may lawfully marry. Laws prohibiting marriage to a child or a close relative also interfere directly and substantially with the right to marry. However, under the Wisconsin statute, a person’s economic status may determine his eligibility to enter into a lawful marriage – this is unconstitutional.

Rehnquist’s dissent: Agrees with Powell’s reasons for rejecting the Court’s conclusion that marriage is the sort of “fundamental right” which must invariably trigger the strictest judicial scrutiny. Believes that under the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause, the statute only needs to pass a “rational basis test.” The State has an exceptionally strong interest in securing as much support as their parents are able to pay.

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