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Kirchberg v. Feenstra

Kirchberg v. Feenstra, 450 U.S. 455 (1981), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court held a Louisiana Head and Master law, which gave sole control of marital property to the husband, unconstitutional.[1][2]

Kirchberg v. Feenstra
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued December 10, 1980
Decided March 23, 1981
Full case nameKirchberg v. Feenstra et al.
Citations450 U.S. 455 (more)
101 S. Ct. 1195; 67 L. Ed. 2d 428
Court membership
Chief Justice
Warren E. Burger
Associate Justices
William J. Brennan Jr. · Potter Stewart
Byron White · Thurgood Marshall
Harry Blackmun · Lewis F. Powell Jr.
William Rehnquist · John P. Stevens
Case opinions
MajorityMarshall, joined by Burger, Brennan, White, Blackmun, Powell, Stevens
ConcurrenceStewart, joined by Rehnquist


In 1974, Joan Feenstra charged her husband Harold had molested their daughter. Harold hired an attorney, Karl Kirchberg, to defend himself against the charges, and mortgaged the Feenstras' home toward paying the cost of that attorney. Joan was not informed of this mortgage because Head and Master provisions of Louisiana law allowed him to do so without her consent or knowledge. She dropped the charges, and the couple separated. Joan did not learn about the mortgage until 1976, when Harold's attorney returned to demand payment and threatened foreclosure.[1] She then filed a lawsuit arguing that Louisiana's laws giving sole control of marital property to the husband were unconstitutional.

The district court upheld Louisiana's law. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit overturned the district court, finding the law unconstitutionally violated the Equal Protection Clause, but limited the application of their ruling to future decisions. Feenstra appealed to the Supreme Court.[3]

Opinion of the CourtEdit

Applying intermediate scrutiny as they had in Craig v. Boren, the court held that Louisiana's law lacked an "exceedingly persuasive justification" for its sex-based classification, and therefore was in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[2][4]

Further developmentsEdit

In 1980, during the appeals process, Louisiana changed their laws to eliminate the Head and Master provisions.[2][5]

Obergefell v. HodgesEdit

In 2015, during oral arguments in the same-sex marriage case Obergefell v. Hodges U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg used the example of the Supreme Court's striking down of Louisiana's Head and Master rule in Kirchberg v. Feenstra to illustrate how "traditional" concepts of marriage had been revised over time.[6]

Justice Ginsburg: "We have changed our idea about marriage is the point that I made earlier. Marriage today is not what it was under the common law tradition, under the civil law tradition. Marriage was a relationship of a dominant male to a subordinate female. That ended as a result of this Court’s decision in 1982 when Louisiana’s Head and Master Rule was struck down. And no State was allowed to have such a—such a marriage anymore. Would that be a choice that a State should be allowed to have?" [7]


  1. ^ a b Schenken, Suzanne O'Dea; O'Dea, Suzanne (1999). From Suffrage to the Senate: An Encyclopedia of American Women in Politics. ABC-CLIO. pp. 380–. ISBN 9780874369601. Retrieved 28 April 2015.
  2. ^ a b c Kuersten, Ashlyn K. (2003-01-01). Women and the Law: Leaders, Cases, and Documents. ABC-CLIO. pp. 95–. ISBN 9780874368789. Retrieved 28 April 2015.
  3. ^ Opinion of the Court at Justia
  4. ^ Shaman, Jeffrey M. (2001-01-01). Constitutional Interpretation: Illusion and Reality. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 95–. ISBN 9780313314735. Retrieved 29 April 2015.
  5. ^ Young, Rowland L. (1981). "Supreme Court Report". ABA Journal. 67 (5): 630-. JSTOR 20747149.
  6. ^ Dan Roberts (30 April 2015). "Ruth Bader Ginsburg eviscerates same-sex marriage opponents in court". The Guardian.
  7. ^ "Oral Arguments Obergefell v. Hodges" (PDF). 26 June 2015.

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