Law School Case Brief
Lehr v. Robertson - 463 U.S. 248, 103 S. Ct. 2985 (1983)
When an unwed father demonstrates a full commitment to the responsibilities of parenthood by coming forward to participate in the rearing of his child, his interest in personal contact with his child acquires substantial protection under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, U.S. Const. amend. XIV. At that point it may be said that he acts as a father toward his children. But the mere existence of a biological link does not merit equivalent constitutional protection. The actions of judges neither create nor sever genetic bonds. The importance of the familial relationship, to the individuals involved and to the society, stems from the emotional attachments that derive from the intimacy of daily association, and from the role it plays in promoting a way of life through the instruction of children as well as from the fact of blood relationship.
Appellant Jonathan Lehr was the putative father of Jessica M., a child born out of wedlock. Lorraine Robertson, Jessica's mother, married Richard Robertson, after the child was born. Subsequently, when Jessica was over two years old, the Robertsons filed an adoption petition in the Ulster County, New York, Family Court, which entered an order of adoption. Appellant never supported the child or offered to marry Lorraine. He also did not enter his name in New York's "putative father registry," which would have entitled him to notice of the adoption proceeding. He also was not in any of the classes of putative fathers who were entitled under New York law to receive notice of adoption proceedings. After the adoption proceeding was commenced, Lehr filed a paternity petition in the Westchester County, New York, Family Court. Lehr learned of the pending adoption proceeding several months later. Shortly thereafter, his attorney sought a stay of the adoption proceeding pending the determination of the paternity action, but by that time the Ulster County Family Court had already entered the adoption order. Appellant filed a petition to vacate the adoption order on the ground that it was obtained in violation of his rights under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Ulster County Family Court denied the petition, and both the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court and the New York Court of Appeals affirmed.
Did the adoption order violate the Lehr's rights under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment?
The United States Supreme Court held that Lehr's rights, as the putative father, under the due process and equal protection clauses were not violated when he did not receive notice and an opportunity to be heard before his child was adopted because he never had any significant custodial, personal, or financial relationship with the child and he waited two years to establish a legal tie. The Court further held that the State of New York adequately protected the Lehr's inchoate interest in establishing a relationship with his daughter through the provision of laws authorizing formal marriage, through its statutory adoption scheme, and through the putative father registry. Further, it concluded that the Equal Protection Clause did not prevent a state from according two parents different legal rights where one had a continuous custodial responsibility for the child, while the other never established a relationship.
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