Jonathan Lehr v. Lorraine Robertson, 463 U.S. 248 (1983)

CASE: Putative sues over the adoption of his daughter by her mother and her husband.

FACTS: Jessica M. was born out of wedlock in 1976. Her mother married another man eight months after the baby's birth. When Jessica was more than two years old, the couple filed an adoption petition, and the girl was adopted by the mother's husband on March 7, 1978. Lehr, who had filed a visitation and paternity petition shortly after the adoption proceeding was filed in another county, received notice of the adoption only accidentally; nothing in the statute governing adoption required that he, a putative father who had not registered on the state's "putative father registry", be notified of the pending adoption. He learned of the adoption on the same day the final order was signed. He filed a petition to vacate the order of adoption on the grounds of fraud and that it violated his procedural due process rights. Trial court denied the petition; Lehr appealed.

QUESTION: Did New York sufficiently protect an unmarried father's inchoate relationship with a child whom he has never supported and rarely seen in the two years since her birth?

LEHR ARGUES:

  1. A putative father's actual or potential relationship with a child born out of wedlock is an interest in liberty which may not be destroyed without due process of law, therefore, Lehr had a constitional right to prior notice and an opportunity to be heard before he was deprived of that interest.
  2. The gender-based clasification in the statute, which both denied him the right to consent to Jessica's adoption and accorded him with fewer rights than her mother, violated the Equal Protection Clause.
  3. Even if the statute did protect a putative father's opportunity to establish a relationship with an illegitimate child in the normal case, he was entitled to special notice because the court and the mother knew that he had filed an affiliation proceeding in another court.

STATE ARGUES: Probably that the state has a compelling interest in prohibiting homosexual marriages, that the state has the power to regulate marriage.

COURT SAYS: Affirms the lower court ruling, upholding the adoption.

HOLDINGS:

  1. State did not deprive putative father of his interest in a potential relationship with his child without due process of law by not notifying him of the child's pending adoption by another man where the putative father had not supported or established a relationship with a child in the two years since her birth and had not demonstrated his intent to claim paternity of the child earlier by placing his name on a "putative father directory maintained by the state.
  2. State did not violate putative father's rights to equal protection under the law by according the mother of his illigitimate child veto power over her adoption but not the putative father where the child had been in the custody of the mother and where the putative father had not never established a relationship with his illegitimate child.

RATIONALE:

  • The significance of the biological connection between a child and a parent is that it offers the natural father an opportunity that no other male possesses to develop a relationship with his offspring. If he fails to grasp that opportunity, the Federal Constitution will not ultimately compel a state to listen to his opinion of where the child's best interests lie.
  • The other cases in which the court has upheld the rights of the natural parents against state statutes involved parents who were involved with their children and who had custody of their children. The common thread, the court seems to be saying, as the the court does not want to break up an already established family unit with a judicial decree about genetics and biology.

DISSENT (White, Marshall, Blackmun): Lehr's rights as a biological father were protected by the constitution or they were not; it nothing to do with whether he had any contact with the child. Furthermore, the record shows that he had no opportunity to present his case. Therefore, the record is incomplete on the issue of how much he tried to establish a relationship with the child. Lehr contends that, but for the actions of the mother of the child, he would have been able to establish relationship with his baby. It makes little sense to deny notice and hearing to a father who has not placed his name in the register but who has unmistakably identified himself as the father by filing a paternity suit. Because Lehr's due process rights were so obviously violated, there is no need to reach the question of whether his equal protection rights were also violated.


T O P