In considering whether state legislation violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1, the U.S. Supreme Court applies different levels of scrutiny to different types of classifications. At a minimum, a statutory classification must be rationally related to a legitimate governmental purpose. Classifications based on race or national origin, and classifications affecting fundamental rights, are given the most exacting scrutiny. Between these extremes of rational basis review and strict scrutiny lies a level of intermediate scrutiny, which generally has been applied to discriminatory classifications based on sex or illegitimacy.
Ten years after her illegitimate daughter's birth, petitioner, Cherlyn Clark, filed a support complaint on the daughter's behalf in a Pennsylvania state court, naming respondent, Gene Jeter, as the father. Although a blood test showed a 99.3% probability that Jeter was the father, the court entered judgment for respondent on the basis of a state statute providing that actions to establish the paternity of an illegitimate child ordinarily had to be commenced within six years of the child's birth. The court rejected Clark’s contentions that the statute violated the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution. While Clark's appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania was pending, the State adopted an 18-year statute of limitations for paternity actions, in order to comply with a requirement of the federal Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984. The Superior Court concluded, however, that the new 18-year statute of limitations did not apply retroactively, and that the 6-year period continued to apply in cases like Clark's.
Was Pennsylvania's six year statute of limitations constitutional?
The Court held that the 6-year statute of limitations violated the equal protection clause, because the 6-year limitation period was not substantially related to Pennsylvania's interest in avoiding the litigation of stale or fraudulent claims.