Written by attorney Joshua Slavone Guillory

Father's Rights and the Equal Protection Clause

There are numerous legal issues litigated before many Courts as it pertains to “father’s rights." A lot of this litigation as evolved over the last decade. For example, a father seeking custody of a child is not that uncommon today as opposed to twenty years ago. The issue of child support has also evolved. However, this evolution (child support) is generally a statutorily regulated area. Each state, through its elected legislators, establishes laws governing child support.

Our Constitution was designed to protect “we the people" from the government. It was not designed to protect the government from the people. Our Constitution also demands a balance as no right is absolute. Consider Clark v. Jeter, 486 U.S. 456 (1988).

Clark involves a Pennsylvania state law that touches on legitimacy and child support. Recall that the term “legitimate" historically refers to a child born between two people that are married. In contrast, the term “illegitimate" historically refers to a child born between two people that are not married. Today the term “illegitimate child" is commonly now referred to as a “child born outside of marriage."

In Clark, a Pennsylvania law required illegitimate children to prove paternity before seeking support from their fathers. The statute of limitations at the time on suits seeking to establish paternity was six years from the birth of the illegitimate child. However, the state allowed legitimate children to seek support from their parents at any time. Cherlyn Clark sought child support from Gene Jeter, whom she claimed was the father of her daughter, Tiffany. Blood tests indicated that there was a 99.3% probability that Jeter indeed was Tiffany's father. A state court dismissed Clark's suit because it was initiated after the statute of limitations had expired.

The case was brought before the United States Supreme Court. The ultimate issue in this case was whether Pennsylvania’s law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court found that the statute violated the Constitution. Justice O'Connor wrote the majority opinion and (the Court) held that the Pennsylvania law did not "provide a reasonable opportunity to assert a claim on behalf of an illegitimate child." Further, this case involved discrimination based on legitimacy. Discrimination based on legitimacy will receive strict scrutiny from the Court and will only be justified (“valid" or “Constitutional") if the government can show that its law serves a compelling interest, and the law must be narrowly tailored to serve that compelling interest. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that the statute requiring a six year statute of limitation period for illegitimate children and not legitimate children violated the Constitution.

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