The Supreme Court overturned a lower court's decision to uphold an Oklahoma law that prohibited the sale of 3.2% beer to males under 21 and females under 18. The Court allowed a licensed vendor of 3.2% beer to challenge the law's constitutionality based on equal protection objections raised by males aged 18-20. The Court found that the gender-based distinction in the Oklahoma statute regulating the purchase of 3.2% beer was not substantially related to the important governmental objective of traffic safety and therefore could not withstand an equal protection challenge. The Court held that legislatures must either realign their substantive laws in a gender-neutral fashion or adopt procedures for identifying instances where the sex-centered generalization actually comports with fact.
Justice Powell agrees with the Court's decision but expresses concerns about the standard for equal protection analysis and the relevance of statistical evidence. He believes that gender-based classifications require a more critical examination than other classifications. However, he finds this case relatively easy as the promotion of highway safety is a legitimate and important objective. The decision depends on whether the state legislature's chosen classification has a fair and substantial relation to this objective. The statistics used by the defendants and the District Court to categorize individuals based on a three-year age difference between genders are doubted by the author. The author finds this grouping unfair and not significantly related to the objective of the law. Additionally, the classification can be easily avoided, rendering it mostly pointless.
Justice Stevens concurs that the Equal Protection Clause requires all states to govern impartially and that a double standard is an error. He argues that the two-tiered analysis of equal protection claims is not a logical method of deciding cases. The classification in this case is objectionable because it is based on an accident of birth and is a remnant of the tradition of discriminating against males in a certain age bracket. The law restrains 100% of males in the class because of the actions of only 2%, which is not a significant deterrent. The insult to all young men in the state cannot be justified by punishing the 98% for the sins of the 2%.
I mostly agree with the Court's decision, but I disagree with one part. However, I do agree that the Oklahoma law in question is not protected by the Twenty-first Amendment.
The court has the power to regulate alcohol distribution, but this does not allow for discriminatory actions. The appellant has standing to assert equal protection claims for males aged 18 to 21. The Oklahoma statutes create an irrational disparity as they fail to prove that 3.2% beer is more harmful to males aged 18-20 than females of the same age. This unequal treatment of sexes without a valid justification amounts to invidious discrimination, which is supported by the Reed v. Reed case. The lower court erred in its judgment on the constitutional issue.
The dissenting opinion by Chief Justice Burger argues that the appellant, Whitener, lacks standing to assert the constitutional rights of her customers as a saloonkeeper. The case does not fit within any exceptions, and there is no risk of dilution of those rights if Whitener is not allowed to litigate them. The author does not support the introduction of a new concept of constitutional standing that would allow a vendor to assert the constitutional rights of customers. The duty of the court is not to create substantive constitutional rights in the name of guaranteeing equal protection of the laws. The means employed by the Oklahoma Legislature to achieve the objectives sought may not be agreeable to some judges, but since eight Members of the Court think the means not irrational, there is no basis for striking down the statute as violative of the Constitution simply because it is unwise, unneeded, or possibly even a bit foolish. The author would affirm the judgment of the District Court.
Justice Rehnquist dissents from the Court's decision, arguing that the Oklahoma statute challenged in this case is constitutional under the "rational basis" equal protection analysis. The Court should use a more traditional type of scrutiny in cases like this and be cautious about relying on statistical evidence. The State's conclusion that beer was a predominant source of intoxication-related arrests for males in the age group is reasonable, given that four-fifths of them expressed a preference for beer. Therefore, the State can prohibit those males from purchasing any alcoholic beer, including 3.2% beer. The Court lacks the expertise or data to evaluate the intoxicating properties of 3.2% beer and must defer to the reasonable inference supporting the statute.
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