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LEHR v. ROBERTSON ET AL.

decided: June 27, 1983.

LEHR
v.
ROBERTSON ET AL.



APPEAL FROM THE COURT OF APPEALS OF NEW YORK.

Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and Brennan, Powell, Rehnquist, and O'connor, JJ., joined. White, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Marshall and Blackmun, JJ., joined, post, p. 268.

Author: Stevens

[ 463 U.S. Page 249]

 JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether New York has sufficiently protected an unmarried father's inchoate relationship with a child whom he has never supported and rarely seen in

[ 463 U.S. Page 250]

     the two years since her birth. The appellant, Jonathan Lehr, claims that the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, as interpreted in Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645 (1972), and Caban v. Mohammed, 441 U.S. 380 (1979), give him an absolute right to notice and an opportunity to be heard before the child may be adopted. We disagree.

Jessica M. was born out of wedlock on November 9, 1976. Her mother, Lorraine Robertson, married Richard Robertson eight months after Jessica's birth.*fn1 On December 21, 1978, when Jessica was over two years old, the Robertsons filed an adoption petition in the Family Court of Ulster County, New York. The court heard their testimony and received a favorable report from the Ulster County Department of Social Services. On March 7, 1979, the court entered an order of adoption.*fn2 In this proceeding, appellant contends that the adoption order is invalid because he, Jessica's putative father, was not given advance notice of the adoption proceeding.*fn3

The State of New York maintains a "putative father registry."*fn4 A man who files with that registry demonstrates his

[ 463 U.S. Page 251]

     intent to claim paternity of a child born out of wedlock and is therefore entitled to receive notice of any proceeding to adopt that child. Before entering Jessica's adoption order, the Ulster County Family Court had the putative father registry examined. Although appellant claims to be Jessica's natural father, he had not entered his name in the registry.

In addition to the persons whose names are listed on the putative father registry, New York law requires that notice of an adoption proceeding be given to several other classes of possible fathers of children born out of wedlock -- those who have been adjudicated to be the father, those who have been identified as the father on the child's birth certificate, those who live openly with the child and the child's mother and who hold themselves out to be the father, those who have been identified as the father by the mother in a sworn written statement, and those who were married to the child's mother before the child was six months old.*fn5 Appellant admittedly

[ 463 U.S. Page 252]

     was not a member of any of those classes. He had lived with appellee prior to Jessica's birth and visited her in the hospital when Jessica was born, but his name does not appear on Jessica's birth certificate. He did not live with appellee or Jessica after Jessica's birth, he has never provided them with any financial support, and he has never offered to marry appellee. Nevertheless, he contends that the following special circumstances gave him a constitutional right to notice and a hearing before Jessica was adopted.

On January 30, 1979, one month after the adoption proceeding was commenced in Ulster County, appellant filed a "visitation and paternity petition" in the Westchester County Family Court. In that petition, he asked for a determination of paternity, an order of support, and reasonable visitation privileges with Jessica. Notice of that proceeding was served on appellee on February 22, 1979. Four days later appellee's attorney informed the Ulster County Court that appellant had commenced a paternity proceeding in Westchester County; the Ulster County judge then entered an

[ 463 U.S. Page 253]

     order staying appellant's paternity proceeding until he could rule on a motion to change the venue of that proceeding to Ulster County. On March 3, 1979, appellant received notice of the change of venue motion and, for the first time, learned that an adoption proceeding was pending in Ulster County.

On March 7, 1979, appellant's attorney telephoned the Ulster County judge to inform him that he planned to seek a stay of the adoption proceeding pending the determination of the paternity petition. In that telephone conversation, the judge advised the lawyer that he had already signed the adoption order earlier that day. According to appellant's attorney, the judge stated that he was aware of the pending paternity petition but did not believe he was required to give notice to appellant prior to the entry of the order of adoption.

Thereafter, the Family Court in Westchester County granted appellee's motion to dismiss the paternity petition, holding that the putative father's right to seek paternity "must be deemed severed so long as an order of adoption exists." App. 228. Appellant did not appeal from that dismissal.*fn6 On June 22, 1979, appellant filed a petition to vacate the order of adoption on the ground that it was obtained by fraud and in violation of his constitutional rights. The Ulster County Family Court received written and oral argument on the question whether it had "dropped the ball" by approving the adoption without giving appellant advance notice. Tr. 53. After deliberating for several months, it denied the petition, explaining its decision in a thorough written opinion. In re Adoption of Martz, 102 Misc. 2d 102, 423 N. Y. S. 2d 378 (1979).

The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court affirmed. In re Adoption of Jessica "XX," 77 App. Div. 2d 381, 434 N. Y. S. 2d 772 (1980). The majority held that appellant's commencement of a paternity action did not give him any

[ 463 U.S. Page 254]

     right to receive notice of the adoption proceeding, that the notice provisions of the statute were constitutional, and that Caban v. Mohammed, 441 U.S. 380 (1979), was not retroactive.*fn7 Parenthetically, the majority observed that appellant "could have insured his right to notice by signing the putative father registry." 77 App. Div. 2d, at 383, 434 N. Y. S. 2d, at 774. One justice dissented on the ground that the filing of the paternity proceeding should have been viewed as the statutory equivalent of filing a notice of intent to claim paternity with the putative father registry.

The New York Court of Appeals also affirmed by a divided vote. In re Adoption of Jessica "XX," 54 N. Y. 2d 417, 430 N. E. 2d 896 (1981). The majority first held that it did not need to consider whether our decision in Caban affected appellant's claim that he had a right to notice, because Caban was not retroactive.*fn8 It then rejected the argument that the mother had been guilty of a fraud upon the court. Finally, it addressed what it described as the only contention of substance advanced by appellant: that it was an abuse of discretion to enter the adoption order without requiring that notice be given to appellant. The court observed that the primary purpose of the notice provision of ยง 111-a was to enable the person served to provide the court with evidence concerning the best interest of the child, and that appellant had made no tender indicating any ability to provide any particular or special information relevant to Jessica's best interest. Considering the record as a whole, and acknowledging that it might have been prudent to give notice, the court concluded

[ 463 U.S. Page 255]

     that the Family Court had not abused its discretion either when it entered the order without notice or when it denied appellant's petition to reopen the proceedings. The dissenting judges concluded that the Family Court had abused its discretion, both when it entered the order without notice and when it refused to reopen the proceedings.

Appellant has now invoked our appellate jurisdiction.*fn9 He offers two alternative grounds for holding the New York statutory scheme unconstitutional. First, he contends that 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; he argues therefore that he had a constitutional right to prior notice and an opportunity to be heard before he was deprived of that interest. Second, he contends that the gender-based classification in the statute, which both denied him the right to consent to Jessica's adoption and accorded him fewer procedural rights than her mother, violated the Equal Protection Clause.*fn10

[ 463 U.S. Page 256]

     of marriage has played a critical role both in defining the legal entitlements of family members and in developing the decentralized structure of our democratic society.*fn12 In recognition of that role, and as part of their general overarching concern for serving the best interests of children, state laws almost universally express an appropriate preference for the formal family.*fn13

In some cases, however, this Court has held that the Federal Constitution supersedes state law and provides even greater protection for certain formal family relationships. In those cases, as in the state cases, the Court has emphasized the paramount interest in the welfare of children and has noted that the rights of the parents are a counterpart of the responsibilities they have assumed. Thus, the "liberty" of parents to control the education of their children that was vindicated in Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923), and Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), was described as a "right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare [the child] for additional obligations." Id., at 535. The linkage between parental duty and parental right was stressed again in Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166 (1944), when the Court declared it a cardinal principle "that the custody, care and nurture of the child reside

[ 463 U.S. Page 258]

     first in the parents, whose primary function and freedom include preparation for obligations the state can neither supply nor hinder." Ibid. In these cases the Court has found that the relationship of love and duty in a recognized family unit is an interest in liberty entitled to constitutional protection. See also Moore v. City of East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494 (1977) (plurality opinion). "[State] intervention to terminate [such a] relationship . . . must be accomplished by procedures meeting the requisites of the Due Process Clause." Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 753 (1982).

There are also a few cases in which this Court has considered the extent to which the Constitution affords protection to the relationship between natural parents and children born out of wedlock. In some we have been concerned with the rights of the children, see, e. g., Trimble v. Gordon, 430 U.S. 762 (1977); Jimenez v. Weinberger, 417 U.S. 628 (1974); Weber v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 406 U.S. 164 (1972). In this case, however, it is a parent who claims that the State has improperly deprived him of a protected interest in liberty. This Court has examined the extent to which a natural father's biological relationship with his child receives protection under the Due Process Clause in precisely three cases: Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645 (1972), Quilloin v. Walcott, 434 U.S. 246 (1978), and Caban v. Mohammed, 441 U.S. 380 (1979).

Stanley involved the constitutionality of an Illinois statute that conclusively presumed every father of a child born out of wedlock to be an unfit person to have custody of his children. The father in that case had lived with his children all their lives and had lived with their mother for 18 years. There was nothing in the record to indicate that Stanley had been a neglectful father who had not cared for his children. 405 U.S., at 655. Under the statute, however, the nature of the actual relationship between parent and ...


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