The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to review the constitutionality of statutory rape laws, which single out men for punishment for having sexual intercourse with underage women.
The court accepted an appeal from a 17-year-old California youth, who faces jail for allegedly having intercourse with a 16-year-old girl on a Sonoma County park bench.
Because the girl can face no charges under statutory rape laws, the youth maintains that such laws discriminate on the basis of sex.
Statutory rape laws were based on the idea that women are the vulnerable sex. Men and boys, even of the same age or younger, were to be deterred from preying on them until they reached the age of majority.
Though male defendants have protested these laws for years and over 20 states have eliminated the sex distinction, the Supreme Court has never ruled on the subject.
The court's action comes in a period when it has been considering a number of gender-based distinctions on a piecemeal basis to see if they are discriminatory. Some are not, it has said.
The California Supreme Court, in the case accepted yesterday, ruled that California's statutory rape law was constitutional.
"There can be no doubt that it discriminates on the basis of sex because only females may be victims and only males may violate" it, the state court ruled. But "the immutable physiological fact is that it is the female exclusively who can become pregnant" and the state has a compelling interest in deterring unwanted pregnancies.
Lawyers for the youth, identified only as Michael M., urged the Supreme Court to take the case because the laws are "based on the outdated stereotype of male supremacy."
In other action yesterday:
The court ruled unanimously that a California shopping center, though privately owned and operated, has no constitutional right to ban political activity on its premises. The case, Pruneyard Shopping Center vs. Robbins, stemmed from the effort of a Jewish organization to gather signatures on a petition at the shopping center.
The shopping center owners had the organization expelled, citing a previous U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing such expulsions from private property.
The justices ruled yesterday, however, that California's constitution, which provides broader guarantees of free speech than the U.S. constitution, protected the Jewish organization's activity even though the Bill of Rights may not.
Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the court that its prior decisions do not "limit the authority of the state to exercise its sovereign right to adopt in its own constitution individual liberties more expansive than those conferred by the federal Constitution."
The opinion continues a Burger court tendency to allow states wide latitude in protecting individual rights.
A unanimous court upheld the conviction of former Gulf Oil Co. vice president F.W. Standefer on charges that he aided and abetted the acceptance of illegal gifts by an Internal Revenue Service agent auditing Gulf's tax returns.
Standefer appealed after other company officials he was alleged to have "aided and abetted" were acquitted on some charges. He argued that in order to convict him, the government also had to convict the others.
Chief Justice Warren Burger, writing for the court, based his ruling on federal legislation, which he said "evinces a clear intent to permit the conviction of accessories to federal criminal offenses despite the prior acquittal of the actual perpetrator of the offense."