The Supreme Court has landed a welcome blow in behalf of women's rights by narrowing the scope of the so-called "marital privilege" which traditionally has been used to keep husbands and views from testifying against one another in criminal trials. The court's unanimous decision provides one more sign of the increasing legal recognition of women and their changing roles in modern society.
Under the new ruling, one spouse still cannot be forcedto testify against the other, but now a husband, say, facing criminal charges will not be able to prevent his wife from volunteering to testify against him. Chief Justice Warren Burger in writing for the court noted that such male-oriented "privileges," grounded in British and American common law, are a throwback to another era -- to a period when women had virtually no legal rights and a wife was looked upon as having no separate legal identity from her husband. The reasoning then was that allowing a wife to testify against her husband was tantamount to forcing the husband to incriminate himself.
Happily, women have come a long way since Massachusetts laws in the early 1800s, for instance, required sewing circles to have a male treasurer because women were not considered capable of handling money. As Chief Justice Burger aptly put it: "Nowhere in the common-law world -- indeed in any modern society -- is a woman regarded as chattel or demeaned by denial of separate legal identity and the dignity associated with recognition as a whole human being. Chip by chip, over the years these archaic notions have been cast aside."
Now that the federal courts have joined those in 26 states in either abolishing the marital privilege altogether or eliminating the spouse's veto power, we say let the chips continue to fall where they may.