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In 1972, under Oklahoma law, beer with an alcohol level of 3.2% could be purchased by women at age eighteen and men at age 21. The age differential could be traced back to the nineteenth century when Oklahoma, then a territory, established different ages of majority for men and women. By the 1970s, however, the state's explanation for treating men and women differently had changed. It was a matter of safety, the state argued; far more young men were arrested for drunk driving than women, and far more young men were injured or killed in car accidents related to drinking.
But eighteen-year old Curtis Craig, a college freshman with a hunger for justice and a thirst for beer, argued that Oklahoma's law violated his Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal treatment under the law. Actually, as is often the case, Craig was something of a front-man. The case was launched by alcohol distributors who resented the loss of the unquenchable 18-20 male beer market but feared that since they were not directly discriminated against by the law, a court would not hear their case. The court might rule that only a person directly injured by the law would have "standing," or legal reason to bring the issue before the court. So they traveled to the campus of Oklahoma State University where, after an exhaustive search, they found a student interested in the interrelated issues of justice and beer.
When Craig's case went to court, the state provided reams of statistical evidence suggesting that young men were more dangerous drinkers. But to a certain extent, the statistical evidence worked against the state. In the Supreme Court's opinion, the fact that 2% of the men and just under 1% of the women between 18 and 21 had been arrested for alcohol-linked driving violations hardly constituted grounds for different treatment. Did the additional one percent justify the punishment of the remaining 98% who had never been arrested? But of more lasting importance than the Court's interpretation of the numbers was its interpretation of the criteria that it should use in evaluating laws of this sort. Dumping the old easy-to-pass rational basis test, the Court argued that "classifications by gender must serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to achievement of those objectives."