Precedent Setting 1972 Case about a State’s Right to Discriminate Against Fathers

Chicago, IL“The private interest here, that of a man in the children he has sired and raised, undeniably warrants deference and, absent a powerful countervailing interest, protection.” 

Over the past 35 years, our Supreme Court has handed down a number of decisions that affect the rights of parents, and, in particular, fathers.  I think these cases are a good way to look at how we all got where we are now, and some cases may provide hope for advancing gender equality in the future.  Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645 (1972) is about a state”s right to discriminate against men in terms of parenting.

“Under Illinois law […] children of unwed fathers become wards of the state upon the death of the mother.’  Peter Stanley had just lost his wife, and the state of Illinois started dependency proceedings intended to remove Stanley”s three children from his custody, and move them into foster homes.

Stanley appealed the decision, and lost every appeal, including the Illinois Supreme Court.  On appeal to the US Supreme Court, he argued that married fathers and unmarried mothers were not presumed to be unfit parents, so the equal protection doctrine should prohibit the state from removing his children simply because he was a father and was not married.  We should all be glad that the Court agreed.

The state courts suggested that there was no equal protection problem, because Stanley could adopt or foster his children as easily as any married parent or unmarried mother could simply care for their child. The Supreme Court pointed out that Stanley had “been treated differently’ and that the Court does not believe, “a wrong may be done if it can be undone. […] [I]f there is delay between the doing and the undoing [Father] suffers from the deprivation of his children […].’

As with many appellate court decisions, the Court reduced the case to one (in most cases it is a few) question: “Is a presumption that distinguishes and burdens all unwed fathers constitutionally repugnant?’ The Court determined that the State, “denied Stanley the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.’

While the Court ended up returning Stanley”s children to him, and acknowledging the irreparable damage that had been done to the family because of the state, the Court”s reasoning included several statements that are, to this day, included in cases regarding family, parental and father”s rights.  I really enjoy quoting cases like this, so here”s a bunch of them from this case…pick your favorites.

“The private interest here, that of a man in the children he has sired and raised, undeniably warrants deference and, absent a powerful countervailing interest, protection.’  “The rights to conceive and to raise one’s children have been deemed ‘essential,” ‘basic civil rights of man,” and ‘rights far more precious . . . than property rights,” ‘It is cardinal with us that the custody, care and nurture of the child reside first in the parents, whose primary function and freedom include preparation for obligations the state can neither supply nor hinder.” ‘The integrity of the family unit has found protection in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Ninth Amendment.”‘ [Internal citations omitted, and sentences condensed accordingly] …and that”s just one paragraph.

My personal favorite is “What is the state interest in separating children from fathers without a hearing designed to determine whether the father is unfit in a particular disputed case? We observe that the State registers no gain towards its declared goals when it separates children from the custody of fit parents. Indeed, if Stanley is a fit father, the State spites its own articulated goals when it needlessly separates him from his family.’

“The State’s interest in caring for Stanley’s children is de minimis if Stanley is shown to be a fit father. It insists on presuming rather than proving Stanley’s unfitness solely because it is more convenient to presume than to prove. Under the Due Process Clause that advantage is insufficient to justify refusing a father a hearing when the issue at stake is the dismemberment of his family.’

Please, remember that there are corrupt judges out there, and that gender feminists are scary…also remember that there are good and fair judges out there, and that equity feminists generally work for, ya know, equality.  And go read this case…there are lots of scary footnotes involving lower court fault that will give some insight into the legal world of this period.

[Note: Reader Garrett Luttrell, a paralegal and a young single father, is joining the blogging team at Garrett’s previous posts can be seen here. Garrett is pictured with his daughter above–GS]

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