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

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U.S. Supreme Court

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

Zablocki v. Redhail

No. 76-879

Argued October 4, 1977

Decided January 18, 1978

434 U.S. 374


Wisconsin statute providing that any resident of that State "having minor issue not in his custody and which he is under obligation to support by any court order or judgment" may not marry without a court approval order, which cannot be granted absent a showing that the support obligation has been met and that children covered by the support order "are not then and are not likely thereafter to become public charges," held to violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 434 U. S. 383-391.

(a) Since the right to marry is of fundamental importance, e.g., Loving v. Virginia, 388 U. S. 1, and the statutory classification involved here significantly interferes with the exercise of that right, "critical examination" of the state interests advanced in support of the classification is required. Massachusetts Board of Retirement v. Murgia, 427 U. S. 307, 427 U. S. 312, 314. Pp. 383-387.

(b) The state interests assertedly served by the challenged statute unnecessarily impinge on the right to marry. If the statute is designed to furnish an opportunity to counsel persons with prior child support obligations before further such obligations are incurred, it neither expressly requires counseling nor provides for automatic approval after counseling is completed. The statute cannot be justified as encouraging an applicant to support his children. By the proceeding, the State, which already possesses numerous other means for exacting compliance with support obligations, merely prevents the applicant from getting married, without ensuring support of the applicant's prior children. Though it is suggested that the statute protects the ability of marriage applicants to meet prior support obligations before new ones are incurred, the statute is both underinclusive (as it does not limit new financial commitments other than those arising out of the contemplated marriage) and overinclusive (since the new spouse may better the applicant's financial situation). Pp. 434 U. S. 388-390.

418 F.Supp. 1061, affirmed.

Page 434 U. S. 375

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 434 U. S. 391. STEWART, J., post, p. 434 U. S. 391 POWELL, J., post, p. 434 U. S. 396, and STEVENS, J., post, p. 434 U. S. 403, filed opinions concurring in the judgment. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 434 U. S. 407.

Primary Holding

A law that significantly interferes with a certain group's ability to exercise a fundamental right is invalid unless it furthers important state interests and is narrowly tailored to pursue only those important goals.


Wisconsin withheld the right to marry in any state from its residents who had minor children who were not in their custody and to whom they owed a child support obligation, unless they received a court order giving them permission to marry. Redhail failed to satisfy his child support obligations to an illegitimate child, and Zablocki, the County Clerk of Milwaukee County, denied his application for marriage under this law because he had not received court permission to marry. Redhail challenged the law under the Equal Protection Clause. The lower court determined that strict scrutiny was the appropriate standard of review because the statute restricted the fundamental right to marry. Based on that standard of review, the lower court struck down the law and issued an injunction to prevent Wisconsin county clerks from enforcing it.



  • Thurgood Marshall (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun

The state justifies its law on the basis that it motivates child support payers to keep up with their obligations and that it bolsters the welfare of children who are not in the payer's custody. While these interests are legitimate and substantial, the state has not chosen a narrowly tailored means to achieve its objectives. To the contrary, it has imposed an unnecessary burden on the right to marry. The law simply withholds the right to marry without offering any provision for counseling and without providing any money to the children. The state has many other ways to address this issue without interfering with a fundamental right.


  • Potter Stewart (Author)

There is no constitutionally protected right to marry, and the Equal Protection Clause is an appropriate means for challenging classifications rather than violations of substantive rights. The Due Process Clause is a more appropriate way to challenge this law.


  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)

Whether the statute is challenged under the Equal Protection Clause or the Due Process Clause, it should be judged according to a rational basis standard of review. It meets this standard because it fits within the state's widely accepted power to regulate family life.


  • Warren Earl Burger (Author)


  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. (Author)


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)

Case Commentary

The right to marry traditionally has been defined as a fundamental right, similar to others related to family life, such as procreation, childbirth, and raising a child.

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