Michael M. v. Superior Ct.,
450 U.S. 464 (1981)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Michael M. v. Superior Ct., 450 U.S. 464 (1981)

Michael M. v. Superior Court

No. 79-1344

Argued November 4, 1980

Decided March 23, 1981

450 U.S. 464


Petitioner, then a 17 1/2-year-old male, was charged with violating California's "statutory rape" law, which defines unlawful sexual intercourse as "an act of sexual intercourse accomplished with a female not the wife of the perpetrator, where the female is under the age of 18 years." Prior to trial, petitioner sought to set aside the information on both state and federal constitutional grounds, asserting that the statute unlawfully discriminated on the basis of gender since men alone were criminally liable thereunder. The trial court and the California Court of Appeal denied relief, and on review the California Supreme Court upheld the statute.

Held: The judgment is affirmed. Pp. 450 U. S. 468-476; 450 U. S. 481-487.

25 Cal.3d 608, 601 P.2d 572, affirmed.

JUSTICE REHNQUIST, joined by CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER, JUSTICE STEWART, and JUSTICE POWELL, concluded that the statute does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 450 U. S. 468-476.

(a) Gender-based classifications are not "inherently suspect" so as to be subject to so-called "strict scrutiny," but will be upheld if they bear a "fair and substantial relationship" to legitimate state ends. Reed v. Reed, 404 U. S. 71. Because the Equal Protection Clause does not "demand that a statute necessarily apply equally to all persons" or require "things which are different in fact . . . to be treated in law as though they were the same," Rinaldi v. Yeager, 384 U. S. 305, 384 U. S. 309, a statute will be upheld where the gender classification is not invidious, but rather realistically reflects the fact that the sexes are not similarly situated in certain circumstances. Pp. 450 U. S. 468-469.

(b) One of the purposes of the California statute in which the State has a strong interest is the prevention of illegitimate teenage pregnancies. The statute protects women from sexual intercourse and pregnancy at an age when the physical, emotional, and psychological consequences are particularly severe. Because virtually all of the significant harmful and identifiable consequences of teenage pregnancy fall on the female, a legislature acts well within its authority when it

Page 450 U. S. 465

elects to punish only the participant who, by nature, suffers few of the consequences of his conduct. Pp. 450 U. S. 470-473.

(c) There is no merit in petitioner's contention that the statute is impermissibly underinclusive, and must, in order to pass judicial scrutiny, be broadened so as to hold the female as criminally liable as the male. The relevant inquiry is not whether the statute is drawn as precisely as it might have been, but whether the line chosen by the California Legislature is within constitutional limitations. In any event, a gender-neutral statute would frustrate the State's interest in effective enforcement, since a female would be less likely to report violations of the statute if she herself would be subject to prosecution. The Equal Protection Clause does not require a legislature to enact a statute so broad that it may well be incapable of enforcement. Pp. 450 U. S. 473-474.

(d) Nor is the statute impermissibly overbroad because it makes unlawful sexual intercourse with prepubescent females, incapable of becoming pregnant. Aside from the fact that the statute could be justified on the grounds that very young females are particularly susceptible to physical injury from sexual intercourse, the Constitution does not require the California Legislature to limit the scope of the statute to older teenagers and exclude young girls. P. 450 U. S. 475.

(e) And the statute is not unconstitutional as applied to petitioner who, like the girl involved, was under 18 at the time of sexual intercourse, on the asserted ground that the statute presumes in such circumstances that the male is the culpable aggressor. The statute does not rest on such an assumption, but instead is an attempt to prevent illegitimate teenage pregnancy by providing an additional deterrent for men. The age of the man is irrelevant, since young men are as capable as older men of inflicting the harm sought to be prevented. P. 450 U. S. 475.

BLACKMUN, J., concluded that the California statutory rape law is a sufficiently reasoned and constitutional effort to control at its inception the problem of teenage pregnancies, and that the California Supreme Court's judgment should be affirmed on the basis of the applicable test for gender-based classifications as set forth in Reed v. Reed, 404 U. S. 71, 404 U. S. 76, and Craig v. Boren, 429 U. S. 190, 429 U. S. 197. Pp. 450 U. S. 481-487.

REHNQUIST, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which BURGER, C.J. and STEWART and POWELL, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 450 U. S. 476. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 450 U. S. 481. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which WHITE and MARSALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 450 U. S. 488. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 450 U. S. 496.

Page 450 U. S. 466

Primary Holding

Equal protection permits criminalizing men who have sex with women under a certain age without also criminalizing women who engaged in sex with men under the same age.


Section 261.5 of the California Penal Code prohibited sex with a female under the age of 18 but did not prohibit sex with males under the age of 18. A 17-year-old named Michael M. was charged under this law after he had sex with a woman under age 18. He argued that the complaint should be set aside because the statute excluded males from its coverage, which meant that it violated the Equal Protection Clause, but the state courts rejected this argument.



  • William Hubbs Rehnquist (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • Potter Stewart
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.

The state has a significant interest in preventing teenage pregnancies, which are likely to result either in abortion or in children who become wards of the state. Teenage boys are not similarly situated to teenage girls because they are not capable of becoming pregnant. Females also are more likely than males to suffer psychological and emotional consequences from teenage sex. The state should receive great deference regarding this issue, and the connection of the law to its objective is rational.


  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Thurgood Marshall

Intermediate scrutiny is appropriate for a classification based on gender. The state could achieve the same objectives through a law that does not distinguish between male and female teenagers. This would even serve the objectives more successfully by imposing criminal penalties for teenage sex on both males and females. The current version of the law must be shown to be more effective than the gender-neutral version for it to be found constitutional.


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)

The law will not actually inhibit teenagers from engaging in sex, so the issue becomes whether they are not similarly situated such that the statute may treat them differently. The law seems to assume that the male is the more guilty party, maybe assuming that the male usually initiates the decision to have sex. But the female also should be subject to the law because she is at a greater risk. There is no evidence in the record that suggests that males are more culpable than females.


  • Potter Stewart (Author)


  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)

Case Commentary

When analyzing other types of statutes, the Court had held that gender classification is not permitted if a gender-neutral classification would be equally effective in serving the state's purposes. There is no clear reason why a criminal statute should be viewed differently.

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