Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld

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Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued January 20, 1975
Decided March 19, 1975
Full case name Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare v. Stephen Wiesenfeld
Citations 420 U.S. 636 (more)
95 S. Ct. 1225
Prior history Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey
Holding
The gender-based distinction under 42 U.S.C. § 402(g) of the Social Security Act violates the right to equal protection secured by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Brennan, joined by unanimous
Concurrence Powell, joined by Burger
Concurrence Rehnquist
Douglas took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
42 U.S.C. § 402(g); U.S. Const. amend. V

Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636 (1975), was a decision by the United States Supreme Court, which unanimously held that the gender-based distinction under 42 U.S.C. § 402(g) of the Social Security Act of 1935—which permitted widows but not widowers to collect special benefits while caring for minor children—violated the right to equal protection secured by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Background[edit]

Stephen Wiesenfeld and Paula Polatschek were married in 1970. Stephen ran a minicomputer consulting business and had an irregular income. Paula taught mathematics at Edison High School and earned significantly more than her husband. When Paula died in childbirth from an amniotic embolism, Stephen became the sole provider for their newborn son, Jason.[1] To take care of his son, Stephen cut his work hours and sought child care. Wiesenfeld contested his ineligibility for Social Security survivors' benefits that were made available to widows, but not to widowers.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, along with Melvin Wulf, took on Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld after several unfavorable Supreme Court decisions on gender discrimination cases. In 1974, Kahn v. Shevin had upheld differences in property tax exemption between widows and widowers, and the Supreme Court ruled in Geduldig v. Aiello that denying compensation from work loss due to pregnancy did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Ginsburg looked to Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld to promote the idea of "the care of two loving parents, rather than just one."

Ginsburg made the argument that Section 402(g) of the Social Security Act discriminated against Stephen Wiesenfeld by not providing him with the same survivors' benefits as it would to a widow. Further, Ginsburg argued that Paula's contributions to Social Security were not treated on an equal basis to salaried men, so she was also being discriminated against. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. agreed by differentiating the social security matter from the decision in Kahn v. Shevin. The court decided that Section 402(g) "linked as it is directly to responsibility for minor children, was intended to permit women to elect not to work and to devote themselves to the care of children. Since this purpose in no way is premised upon any special disadvantages of women, it cannot serve to justify a gender-based distinction which diminishes the protection afforded to women who do work."

Decision[edit]

The Court decided unanimously in favor of Wiesenfeld. They declared that Section 402(g) of the Social Security Act was unconstitutional on the grounds that the gender based distinctions violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Justice Brennan wrote in the Court's opinion:

Wiesenfeld himself received no monetary benefits from the decision. By the time he initiated the case, he had shut down his consulting business and obtained a well-paid position at a computer company. His salary thus exceeded the income cutoff for receiving Social Security benefits.[2]

Subsequent developments[edit]

Ginsburg helped highlight the idea that the social security provision had discriminated against men acting as caregivers, and women serving as breadwinners. Brennan ruled that "such a gender-based generalization cannot suffice to justify the denigration...of women who do work and whose earnings contribute significantly to their families' support." The decision aimed to establish that it is just as important for a child to be cared for by the male parent, as they will encounter the same difficulties in parenting as the female parent. The court's ruling challenged the traditional male breadwinner/female homemaker model in terms of allocating government benefits.

Though Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld was considered a victory for feminists, the court still was unclear on distinguishing between sex-based classifications that were damaging to women and those that nurtured sexual equality. Gender based social security questions would continue to be explored further in cases such as Califano v. Goldfarb, which Ginsburg was also involved in, and later in Califano v. Webster, for which Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld had helped lay important groundwork.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Strebeigh, Fred (2009). Equal: Women Reshape American Law. Norton. pp. 4–6. ISBN 0393065553. 
  2. ^ Strebeigh. p. 10.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  • Mayeri, Serena (2011). Reasoning From Race. Harvard University Press.

Further reading[edit]

  • Ahern, J. M. (1975). "Economic Discrimination—Denial of Social Security Benefits Premised on Gender-Based Classifications Is Unconstitutional—Violates Equal Protection—Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld". Akron Law Review 9 (1): 166. ISSN 0002-371X. 
  • Huaco, M. B. (1974). "Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld: Equal Protection and Sex Classifications in Government Benefit Programs". New Mexico Law Review 5: 335. ISSN 0028-6214. 

External links[edit]

  • Text of Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636 (1975) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia