Allen Derr, Late Boise Attorney and Landmark Supreme Court Case Winner, Is Integral to On the Basis of Sex 

click to enlarge Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Allen Derr, the Boise attorney who won Reed v. Reed. - COURTESY ALLEN DERR
  • Courtesy Allen Derr
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Allen Derr, the Boise attorney who won Reed v. Reed.
I'm fortunate to have considered Allen Derr a friend. The late Boise attorney was engaging, funny and usually the smartest person in the room. He was also a tiger in the courtroom. I interviewed Derr on several occasions, and he was an integral source for what would become a rather provocative Boise Weekly feature story in 2011 about the mystery and many legal questions surrounding the last days of Margaret Lawrence, the controversial owner of the old Hollywood Market in Boise's North End.

Derr's greatest legal claim to fame was his successful defense of Sally Reed in Reed v. Reed, a landmark case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971. Then-civil rights attorney and current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg authored the defense brief to the high court.

click to enlarge Felicity Jones is Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex. - FOCUS FEATURES
  • Focus Features
  • Felicity Jones is Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex.
It will likely be a pleasant surprise for local moviegoers that Reed v. Reed is also an integral element of a new feature film, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex, which opens in Idaho on Friday, Jan. 11. Allen Derr, portrayed by actor Joe Cobden, even makes an appearance in the film.

Here's a bit of background on Reed v. Reed: Sally Reed was separated from her husband Cecil when she challenged him to determine who should serve as administrator of their deceased son's (the estate was valued at less than $1,000). The son was killed by a shotgun blast in the basement of his father's home, and an autopsy indicated that his death was a suicide. Because he died without a will, Sally filed a petition to be appointed administrator of his estate. But Cecil filed a rival application, and Idaho law at the time required that "males must be preferred to females" when more than one person was equally qualified to administer an estate.

Ultimately the case was the subject of several appeals by both Sally and Cecil Reed. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Idaho Code's preference for males was unconstitutional. It was a landmark ruling, because the high court upheld the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited Idaho Code from enforcing differential treatment based on sex. Before the Supreme Court handed down its final ruling, Idaho amended its statutes to eliminate the mandatory preference for males. Because she was then the director of the ACLU Women's Rights Project, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was brought on board by Sally's defense team to author the brief.

  • City of Boise Department of Arts & History
Today, a plaque reading "Sally Reed Lived Here" sits near the intersection of Dorian Street and Vista Avenue in Boise. Sally Reed died on Sept. 26, 2002. Though Derr was not certain of her exact age, he told me that he believed she was 93 when she passed away.

Allen Derr died on June 10, 2013.

On the Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer, opens in theaters across North America on Friday, Jan. 11. You can read BW's review here, and check out showtimes below.
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On the Basis of Sex
Rated PG-13 · 120 minutes · 2019
Official Site:
Director: Mimi Leder
Producer: Robert Cort, Jonathan King, Jeff Skoll, Daniel Stiepleman, Betsy Danbury and Karen Loop
Cast: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Jack Reynor, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen Root, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Chris Mulkey, Francis McCarthy and Wendy Crewson

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