As a matter of due process of law, an unwed father is entitled to a hearing on his fitness as a parent before his children are taken from him; by denying him a hearing and extending it to all other parents whose custody of their children is challenged, the State denies the father the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
In a dependency proceeding by respondent State, the children of plaintiff, an unwed father, were declared wards of the State. Plaintiff appealed from the order, claiming that he had never been shown to have been an unfit parent and that he had been deprived of equal protection of the laws, as guaranteed by U.S. Const. amend. XIV. The state supreme court held that plaintiff could properly be separated from his children upon proof of the single fact that he and the children's mother, who was deceased, had not been married. Plaintiff filed a petition for writ of certiorari. The Supreme Court of the United States granted plaintiff's petition for certiorari, reversed the state supreme court's holding and remanded the case to the state supreme court for proceedings not inconsistent with the Court's opinion.
Were the equal protection rights of plaintiff, an unwed father, violated by respondent State when he was denied hearing on his parental fitness?
The State's interest in caring for plaintiff's children was de minimis if plaintiff was shown to be a fit father. Plaintiff was denied equal protection of the law because all parents were constitutionally entitled to a hearing on their fitness before their children were removed from their custody. Thus, plaintiff, as an unwed father, was also entitled to a hearing.