BOISE – Allen Derr, an Idaho lawyer who won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling to bolster anti-discrimination protections for women, died Monday in Boise. He was 85.
Derr grew up in North Idaho, graduated from Clark Fork High School in 1947, and then earned bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Idaho.
On Nov. 22, 1971, the Supreme Court justices issued their Reed v. Reed decision, holding states cannot discriminate against people because of their gender. It marked a departure from the era when courts often excluded women from full participation in important civil affairs.
Derr’s client, Sally Reed, a woman challenging her estranged husband over which of them should be appointed to oversee their son’s estate following his suicide, was fighting to overturn an Idaho court’s decision based on an 1864 Idaho law: If more than one person claimed to be equally entitled to be trustee, “males must be preferred to females.”
Characteristically humble, Derr in 2011 described his role in the case as nothing extraordinary.
“I was just doing my job,” he said, on the 40th anniversary of the decision when he was honored at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., alongside the lawyer who wrote Reed’s legal brief: current Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Derr’s wife, former Ada County Commissioner Judy Peavey-Derr, confirmed his death Monday morning in an email forwarded through family friend David Frazier.
The decision in Reed v. Reed has been celebrated in the 2001 book by historians Alan Brinkley and James McPherson, “Days of Destiny,” as among a handful of uncelebrated events that nonetheless changed the course of history.
Derr remembered clearly Sally Reed’s frustration when she entered his office in Boise, seeking help.
“When she came to me, she’d just been turned down by the probate court, in a very short, one-page decision,” he said. “She was hurt and outraged.”
Derr’s basic argument was simple. The U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment forbade such discrimination.
Chief Justice Warren Burger, writing the unanimous decision, agreed.
“To give a mandatory preference to members of either sex over members of the other, merely to accomplish the elimination of hearings on the merits, is to make the very kind of arbitrary legislative choice forbidden by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” Burger wrote.
Derr practiced law until recently, though his body was slowed by age and a diagnosis of leukemia.
He was a founding member of the Idaho Press Club and long served on its board of directors.
Derr was preceded in death by his first wife, Helen Derr.
Though he ran unsuccessfully in the 1960s for the Idaho Legislature, Derr credited his long-standing personal ties to the Idaho Capitol with inspiring his legal career.
His father, Alfred M. Derr, served in the state Senate. His mother, Hattie Derr, was appointed Idaho’s first female senator in 1937, to fill in for his father during a bout of appendicitis. Allen Derr served as a legislative page in 1941.
As a youngster, he also wasn’t above a little good natured mischief. With his two brothers and sister, he once raced on metal-wheeled skates through the marble halls of the Capitol, a boisterous display of childhood joy not overlooked by building security.
“Oh, my God, was that fun,” Derr recalled in 2011. “The noise we created. We got chased out.”