The relationship between parent and child is constitutionally protected. It is cardinal 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. And it is now firmly established that freedom of personal choice in matters of family life is one of the liberties protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In response to a husband's petition to adopt his wife's illegitimate son, who had been continuously in her custody for eleven years, the child's father filed in the Superior Court of Fulton County, Georgia, a petition for legitimation and objections to the adoption despite Georgia statutes requiring only the mother's consent for the adoption of an illegitimate child unless the father has legitimized the child. On the other hand, adoption of a legitimate child under Georgia statutes requires the consent of both living parents, including those divorced or separated, unless the parent has been adjudged unfit or has voluntarily surrendered his rights in the child. After a hearing on the father's legitimation request and objections that the Georgia statutes, as applied to his case, violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, the trial court granted the adoption on the ground that it was in the best interests of the child and rejected the father's constitutional claims.
Did the substantive due process rights of the illegitimate child's father violated by the application of the Georgia statutes?
On appeal, the United States Supreme Court affirmed. It was held that (1) the substantive due process rights of the illegitimate child's father were not violated by the application of the Georgia statutes in the case at bar, since even though he had not been found to be an unfit parent, nevertheless he never sought nor had actual or legal custody of his child, and the adoption did not place the child with a new set of parents but instead, in accordance with the desires of all concerned except the father, recognized the existing family unit, the state not being required under such circumstances to find anything more than that the adoption and the denial of legitimation were in the best interests of the child. (2) The equal protection rights of the father were not violated by application of the Georgia statutes since the state could properly give the illegitimate child's father less adoption veto authority than it provided to a married father, even one who was separated or divorced, in view of the difference in the extent of commitment to the child between (a) the illegitimate child's father, who never had nor sought custody of his child and thus never assumed any significant responsibility with respect to the rearing of his child, and (b) married fathers, legal custody of children being a central aspect of the marital relationship, and even a father whose marriage had failed having borne full responsibility for the rearing of his children during the period of the marriage.