Michael M. v. Superior Court of Sonoma County: Sex, Adolescence and Pretexts
Most constitutional law cases care little for the actual people involved, and more about the overarching consequences of their actions on the U.S. Constitution. The gender issues underlying Michael M. vs. Superior Court of Sonoma County merely used the names of the parties involved, but behind every groundbreaking constitutional law case there is a unique story – one that likely changed someone's entire life. For the protagonist in Michael M., a young teenage boy with a troubled past, the exploits that landed his case in the U.S. Supreme Court were not out of the ordinary when put in the context of his life story.
On March 23, 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court, without a majority opinion, voted to uphold a California statutory rape law criminalizing only male behavior. It was one of many cases in which Supreme Court review was sought to overturn similar gender discriminatory statutory rape laws, but Michael M. was the first time the Court decided to face the issue. When the decision was handed down, it provoked vibrant discussions among civil liberties activists, feminists, conservatives, and liberals alike.
At a time when gender discrimination was a hot issue, Michael M. called into question the legitimacy of gender discriminatory statutory rape laws, as well as the archaic and paternalistic stereotypes upon which such statutes were based. This paper discusses Michael's journey to the U.S. Supreme Court, reviewing the tensions in each opinion and the impact of relying upon rationales for the statute lacking in historical support. By failing to heed important historical lesions the Court did neither side a favor. Real differences between men and women were ignored, disfavored stereotypes were reinforced, and the real importance of age was ignored.
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