Frontiero v. Richardson
411 U.S. 677 (1973)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677 (1973)

Frontiero v. Richardson

No. 71-1694

Argued January 17, 1973

Decided May 14, 1973

411 U.S. 677


A married woman Air Force officer (hereafter appellant) sought increased benefits for her husband as a "dependent" under 37 U.S.C. §§ 401, 403, and 10 U.S.C. §§ 1072, 1076. Those statutes provide, solely for administrative convenience, that spouses of male members of the uniformed services are dependents for purposes of obtaining increased quarters allowances and medical and dental benefits, but that spouses of female members are not dependents unless they are in fact, dependent for over one-half of their support. When her application was denied for failure to satisfy the statutory dependency standard, appellant and her husband brought this suit in District Court, contending that the statutes deprived servicewomen of due process. From that Court's adverse ruling, they took a direct appeal.

Held: The judgment is reversed. Pp. 411 U. S. 682-691; 411 U. S. 691-692.

341 F.Supp. 201, reversed.

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN, joined by MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, MR. JUSTICE WHITE, and MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL, concluded that 37 U.S.C. §§ 401, 403 and 10 U.S.C. §§ 1072, 1076, as inherently suspect statutory classifications based on sex, are so unjustifiably discriminatory as to violate the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Pp. 411 U. S. 682-691.

MR. JUSTICE STEWART concluded that the challenged statutes work an invidious discrimination in violation of the Constitution. Reed v. Reed, 404 U. S. 71. P. 411 U. S. 691.

MR. JUSTICE POWELL, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE and MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN, while agreeing that the statutes deprive servicewomen of due process, concluded that, in the light of Reed v. Reed, 404 U. S. 71, and the fact that the Equal Rights Amendment has been submitted to the States for ratification, it is inappropriate to decide at this time whether sex is a suspect classification. Pp. 411 U. S. 691-692.

Page 411 U. S. 678

BRENNAN, J., announced the Court's judgment and delivered an opinion, in which DOUGLAS, WHITE, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed a statement concurring in the judgment, post, p. 411 U. S. 691. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BURGER, C.J., and BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 411 U. S. 691. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting statement, post, p. 411 U. S. 691.

Primary Holding
Heightened scrutiny applies to disparate treatment based on gender, so a law is unconstitutional if it gives benefits to the spouses of only male but not female service members.
A policy of the U.S. military allowed servicemen to claim wives as dependents for the purposes of obtaining benefits, but servicewomen had a stricter standard to meet. They were required to show that their husbands depended on them for more than half of their financial support. A female lieutenant in the Air Force, Sharron Frontiero, sought medical benefits and housing benefits for her husband as a dependent. He did not meet the policy's requirements.



  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • William Orville Douglas
  • Byron Raymond White

The plurality rejected the Air Force's argument that evaluating the dependent status of every wife as well as every husband would pose a substantial logistical burden. Presenting empirical evidence that wives were more likely to be dependents than husbands was not enough to justify an automatic presumption. The Air Force presented no other reason to justify its policy or to rebut Brennan's suggestion that it might be benefited by removing the presumption, since it could be paying benefits to wives who didn't need them. However, the plurality's attempt to use strict scrutiny for gender-based classifications was later rejected in favor of intermediate scrutiny.


  • Potter Stewart (Author)

This concurrence merely agreed with the majority's result on broader grounds and refrained from discussing standards of review.


  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun

These Justices felt that the standard of review for gender-based classifications should not be determined in this case. Powell argued that a heightened standard of review was not necessary to reach the result here, since the precedent of Reed v. Reed provided sufficient grounds.


  • Felix Frankfurter (Author)

Frankfurter did not believe in using a heightened standard of review and felt that the policy met the rational basis standard.

Case Commentary

This decision was among the first to apply heightened scrutiny to differential treatment based on gender. Although the Court may have used a form of strict scrutiny here, the standard of review eventually evolved into intermediate scrutiny.

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