In the 1981 case of Rostker v. Goldberg, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of male-only draft registration in part because women were barred from combat roles, and female draftees are therefore less valuable to the military than male ones would be. In the thirty years since then, more and more combat roles have been opened up to women, and the Pentagon’s most recent decision is likely to eliminate most if not all remaining gender-based restrictions. So that rationale for a male-only draft is undercut.
But then-Justice William Rehnquist’s majority opinion also relied heavily the courts’ “lack of competence” on national security issues and the consequent need for “healthy deference to legislative and executive judgments in the area of military affairs.” That deference might justify upholding male-only draft registration even if all or most combat positions are open to women. The federal government could argue that, in the expert judgment of the military, few women have the strength and endurance needed for many combat positions, even if they are not categorically barred from them. Thus, female draftees might still be less useful to the military than male ones. A court applying “healthy deference” might choose not to contest that assertion.