Mathews v. De Castro

LOCATION:United States Trust Co. of New York

DOCKET NO.: 75-1197
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)

CITATION: 429 US 181 (1976)
ARGUED: Nov 08, 1976
DECIDED: Dec 13, 1976

Marvin A. Brusman – for appellee
Rex E. Lee – for appellant

Facts of the case


Media for Mathews v. De Castro

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 08, 1976 in Mathews v. De Castro

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – December 13, 1976 in Mathews v. De Castro

Warren E. Burger:

The judgments and opinion of the Court in Mathews, the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare against De Castro will be announced by Mr. Justice Stewart.

Potter Stewart:

This case is here on direct appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

Under the Social Security Act, a married woman whose husband retires or becomes disabled is granted benefits if she has a minor or dependent child in her care.

A divorced woman, whose former husband retires and becomes disabled, does not receive such benefits.

The issue in this case is whether this difference in the statutory treatment of married and divorced women is permissible under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The appellee, Helen De Castro, was divorced from her husband in 1968 after more than 20 years of marriage.

She cares for a disabled child who is illegible for and who receives child insurance benefits under the Act.

In May of 1971, her former husband applied for and later was granted old age insurance benefits.

Mrs. De Castro applied for wife insurance benefits shortly thereafter.

At the time of her application, she was 56 years old.

Her application was denied by the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare because no wife’s benefits are payable to a divorced wife under 62 even if she has a dependent child.

Mrs. De Castro then filed suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois seeking judicial review of the Secretary’s decision.

Her complaint alleged that this provision of the Social Security Act operates to arbitrarily discriminate against divorced wives and her complaint prayed for an injunction against that Section’s application.

A three-judge court was convened.

The Court considered their parties’ cross motions for summary judgment and granted the relief prayed for in the complaint, holding that the wife’s benefits provision, and I’m quoting, “Invidiously discriminates against divorced wives in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”

We have concluded that the District Court was mistaken in its conclusion.

The old age and disability insurance aspects of the Social Security System do not purport to be general public assistance laws that simply pay money to those who needed most.

That was not the predominant purpose of these benefit provisions when they were enacted or when they were amended, rather, the primary objective was to provide workers and their families with basic protection against hardships created by the laws of earnings due to illness or old age.

In view of the legislative purpose, the congressional judgment was hardly an irrational one.

Divorce by its nature works a drastic change in the economic and personal relationship between a husband and wife.

Congress could have rationally assumed that divorced husbands and wives depend less on each other for financial and other support than do couples who stay married.

The problems that a divorced wife may encounter when her former husband becomes old or disabled may well defer in kind and in degree from those that a woman married to retired or disabled husband must face.

In short, divorced couples typically lives separate lives.

It was not irrational for Congress to recognize this basic fact in deciding to defer monthly payments to divorced wives of retired or disabled wage earners until they reach the age of 62.

In any event, the constitutional question is not whether a statutory provision precisely filters out those and only those who are in a factual position which generated the congressional concern reflected in the statute.

For the reasons, I have summarized, spelled out in greater detail in the Court’s written opinion.

We conclude that the statutory classifications involved in this case are not of such an order as to infringe upon the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Accordingly, the judgement is reversed. Mr. Justice Marshall concurs only in the Court’s judgment.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you Mr. Justice Stewart.