Kirchberg v. Feenstra
450 U.S. 455 (1981)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Kirchberg v. Feenstra, 450 U.S. 455 (1981)

Kirchberg v. Feenstra

No. 79-1388

Argued December 10, 1980

Decided March 23, 1981

450 U.S. 455

Syllabus

In 1974, the husband of appellee Feenstra (hereafter appellee), without her knowledge, executed a mortgage on their jointly owned home as security on the husband's promissory note to appellant. The husband executed the mortgage pursuant to a now superseded Louisiana statute (Art. 2404) that gave a husband the unilateral right to dispose of jointly owned community property without his spouse's consent. In 1976, after appellee refused to pay her husband's note, appellant commenced foreclosure proceedings and instituted the instant action in Federal District Court for declaratory relief. Appellee asserted a counterclaim challenging the constitutionality of Art. 2404, and Louisiana and its Governor were joined as third-party defendants on the counterclaim. The District Court granted the State's motion for summary judgment. While appellee's appeal to the Court of Appeals was pending, Louisiana completely revised its community property code provisions so as to grant spouses equal control over the disposition of such property. Because the new code did not take effect until January 1, 1980, it did not control the mortgage executed by appellee's husband. The Court of Appeals held that Art. 2404 violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, but limited its decision to prospective application because the ruling "would create a substantial hardship with respect to property rights and obligations within the State of Louisiana."

Held:

1. Article 2404 violated the Equal Protection Clause. Gender-based discrimination is unconstitutional absent a showing that the classification substantially furthers an important governmental interest, and it is immaterial that, under the earlier statutory provisions, appellee could have made a "declaration by authentic act" prohibiting her husband from executing a mortgage on her home without her consent. The "absence of an insurmountable barrier" will not redeem an otherwise unconstitutionally discriminatory law. Trimble v. Gordon,430 U. S. 762, 430 U. S. 774. Because appellant has failed to offer any justification for the challenged classification, and because the State, by declining to appeal from the decision below, has apparently abandoned any claim that an

Page 450 U. S. 456

important government objective was served by Art. 2404, the Court of Appeals' judgment is affirmed. Pp. 450 U. S. 459-461.

2. There is no ambiguity on the only other question properly before this Court, which is whether the Court of Appeals' prospective decision applies to the mortgage in this case. The dispute between the parties, at its core, involves the validity of a single mortgage -- that executed by appellee's husband -- and in passing on the constitutionality of Art. 2404, the Court of Appeals clearly intended to resolve that controversy adversely to appellant. Pp. 450 U. S. 461-463.

609 F.2d 727, affirmed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 450 U. S. 463.

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