Orr v. Orr

LOCATION: Lee County Courthouse

DOCKET NO.: 77-1119
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court

CITATION: 440 US 268 (1979)
ARGUED: Nov 27, 1978
DECIDED: Mar 05, 1979

John L. Capell, III - argued the cause for appellant William Orr
W. F. Horsley - argued the cause for appellee Lillian Orr

Facts of the case

William and Lillian Orr were divorced in February 1974. William Orr was ordered to pay monthly alimony of $1,240. Lillian Orr sued William Orr for lack of payments in July 1976. Alabama's alimony statutes only required husbands to pay alimony, but not wives. William Orr challenged these statutes as unconstitutional. The Lee County Circuit Court ruled against him. The Court of Civil Appeals of Alabama affirmed this ruling. The Supreme Court of Alabama granted a writ of certiorari that was later dismissed.


(1) Does the Supreme Court have jurisdiction over William Orr's challenge?

(2) Do Alabama's alimony statutes violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Media for Orr v. Orr

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 27, 1978 in Orr v. Orr

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 05, 1979 in Orr v. Orr

Warren E. Burger:

The judgment and opinion of the Court in No. 1119, Orr against Orr will be announced by Mr. Justice Brennan.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

This case is here on certiorari to the Court of Civil Appeals of Alabama.

It presents the question whether the Alabama alimony statutes' effect in unconstitutional gender-based discrimination.

This is because the Alabama Supreme Court has expressly held that there is no authority in this state for awarding alimony against the wife in favor of the husband, the statutory scheme is to provide alimony only in favor of the wife.

The appellant husband in this case challenged this statutory scheme as a gender-based discrimination that violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court of Civil Appeals rejected the claim and sustained the constitutionality of the statutes.

After treating with three preliminary questions going to our jurisdiction to decide this appeal and finding all three to be without merit, the opinion we have filed for the Court addresses the merits.

We reverse the Court of Civil Appeals.

We hold that the Alabama statutory scheme of imposing alimony obligations on husbands but not wives violates the Equal Protection Clause.

Briefly, this is because the statutes cannot be validated on the basis of the state's preference for an allocation of family responsibilities under which the wife plays a dependent role.

No longer is the female destined solely for the home and the rearing of the family, and only the male for the marketplace and world of ideas.

Though it could be argued that the Alabama statutory scheme is designed to provide help for needy spouses, using sex as a proxy for need, and to compensate women for past discrimination during marriage which assertedly has left them unprepared to fend for themselves in the working world following divorce, these considerations would not justify that scheme because under the Alabama statutes individualized hearings at which the parties' relative financial circumstances are considered already occur and have occurred for many decades.

Since such hearings can determine which spouses are needy as well as which wives were in fact discriminated against, there's no reason to operate by generalization.

Thus, the gender-based distinction made by these statutes is gratuitous.

And use of a gender classification moreover actually produces perverse results in this case, because only a financially secure wife whose husband is in need derives an advantage from the Alabama scheme, as compared to a gender-neutral one.

In other words, Alabama legislative classifications in this instance distribute benefits and burdens on the basis of gender.

We therefore carry the inherent risk of reinforcing stereotypes about the proper place of women in the home and their need for special protection.

But even statutes purportedly designed to compensate for and ameliorate the effects of past discrimination must be carefully tailored to satisfy the Equal Protection Clause.

Our opinion demonstrates that the state's compensatory and ameliorative purposes are as well served by a gender-neutral classification as by these that gender classify and carry with them the baggage of sexual stereotypes.

Accordingly, the constitution forbids Alabama to enact alimony statutes that classify on the basis of sex.

Mr. Justice Blackmun and Mr. Justice Stevens joined the Court's opinion have also filed concurring opinions. Mr. Justice Powell has filed a dissenting opinion.

Mr. Justice Rehnquist joined by the Chief Justice, has also filed a dissenting opinion.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you Mr. Justice Brennan.