441 U.S. 347 (1979), 78-3, Parham v. Hughes

Docket Nº:No. 78-3
Citation:441 U.S. 347, 99 S.Ct. 1742, 60 L.Ed.2d 269
Party Name:Parham v. Hughes
Case Date:April 24, 1979
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 347

441 U.S. 347 (1979)

99 S.Ct. 1742, 60 L.Ed.2d 269

Parham

v.

Hughes

No. 78-3

United States Supreme Court

April 24, 1979

Argued January 15, 1979

APPEAL FROM THE SUPREME COURT OF GEORGIA

Syllabus

A Georgia statute, while permitting the mother of an illegitimate child, or the father if he has legitimated the child and there is no mother, to sue for the wrongful death of the child, precludes a father who has not legitimated a child from so suing. Appellant, the father of an illegitimate child, whom he had not legitimated and who was killed, along with the mother, in an automobile accident, sued for the child's wrongful death, and the Georgia trial court, denying a summary judgment for the defendant (appellee), held that the statute violated both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Georgia Supreme Court reversed, holding that the statutory classification was rationally related to three specified legitimate state interests.

Held: The judgment is affirmed. Pp. 351-359; 359-361.

241 Ga.198, 243 S.E.2d 867, affirmed.

MR. JUSTICE STEWART, joined by MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER, MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST, and MR. JUSTICE STEVENS, concluded that:

1. The Georgia statute does not violate the Equal Protection Clause. Pp. 351-358.

(a) If the statute is not invidiously discriminatory, it is entitled to a presumption of validity and will be upheld

unless the varying treatment of different groups or persons is so unrelated to the achievement of any combination of legitimate purposes that we can only conclude that the legislature's actions were irrational,

Vance v. Bradley, 440 U.S. 93, 97. Pp. 351-352.

(b) The rationale that it is unjust and ineffective for society to express its condemnation of procreation outside the marital relationship by punishing the illegitimate child who is in no way responsible for his situation and is unable to change it, Weber v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 406 U.S. 164, is inapplicable to the statute in question, which does not impose differing burdens or award differing benefits to legitimate and illegitimate children, but simply denies a natural father the right to sue for his illegitimate child's wrongful death. Pp. 352-353.

(c) The statute does not invidiously discriminate against appellant simply because he is of the male sex. The conferral of the [99 S.Ct. 1744] right of a

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natural father to sue for his child's wrongful death only if he has previously acted to identify himself, to undertake his paternal responsibilities, and to make his child legitimate, does not reflect any overbroad generalizations about men as a class, but rather the reality that, in Georgia, only a father can, by unilateral action, legitimate an illegitimate child. Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71; Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677; Stanton v. Stanton, 421 U.S. 7, distinguished. Pp. 353-357.

(d) The statutory classification is a rational means for dealing with the problem of proving paternity. If paternity has not been established before the commencement of a wrongful death action, a defendant may be faced with the possibility of multiple lawsuits by individuals all claiming to be the deceased child's father. Pp. 357-358.

2. Nor does the Georgia statute violate the Due Process Clause, Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, distinguished. Pp. 358-359.

MR. JUSTICE POWELL concluded that the gender-based distinction in the Georgia statute does not violate equal protection, inasmuch as it is substantially related to the State's objective of avoiding difficult problems in proving paternity after the death of an illegitimate child. Pp. 359-361.

STEWART, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and REHNQUIST and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 359. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 361.

STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE, MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST, and MR. JUSTICE STEVENS joined.

Under § 105-1307 of the Georgia Code (1978) (hereinafter Georgia statute),1 the mother of an illegitimate child can

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sue for the wrongful death of that child. A father who has legitimated a child can also sue for the wrongful death of the child if there is no mother. A father who has not legitimated a child, however, is precluded from maintaining a wrongful death action. The question presented in this case is whether this statutory scheme violates the Equal Protection or Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by denying the father of an illegitimate child who has not legitimated the child the right to sue for the child's wrongful death.

I

The appellant was the biological father of Lemuel Parham, a minor child who was killed in an automobile collision. The child's mother, Cassandra Moreen, was killed in the same collision. The appellant and Moreen were never married to each other, and the appellant did not legitimate the child as he could have done under Georgia law.2 The appellant did, however, sign the child's birth certificate and contribute to his support.3 The child took the appellant's name, and was visited by the appellant on [99 S.Ct. 1745] a regular basis.

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After the child was killed in the automobile collision, the appellant brought an action seeking to recover for the allegedly wrongful death. The complaint named the appellee (the driver of the other automobile involved in the collision) as the defendant, and charged that negligence on the part of the appellee had caused the death of the child. The child's maternal grandmother, acting as administratrix of his estate, also brought a lawsuit against the appellee to recover for the child's wrongful death.4

The appellee filed a motion for summary judgment in the present case, asserting that, under the Georgia statute, the appellant was precluded from recovering for his illegitimate child's wrongful death. The trial court held that the Georgia statute violated both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment and, accordingly, denied a summary judgment in favor of the appellee. On appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the trial court. 241 Ga.198, 243 S.E.2d 867. The appellate court found that the statutory classification was rationally related to three legitimate state interests: (1) the interest in avoiding difficult problems of proving paternity in wrongful death actions; (2) the interest in promoting a legitimate family unit; and (3) the interest in setting a standard of morality by not according to the father of an illegitimate child the statutory right to sue for the child's death. Accordingly, the court held that the statute did not violate either the Equal Protection or Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. We noted probable jurisdiction of this appeal from the judgment of the Georgia Supreme Court. 439 U.S. 815.

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II

State laws are generally entitled to a presumption of validity against attack under the Equal Protection Clause. Lockport v. Citizens for Community Action, 430 U.S. 259, 272. Legislatures have wide discretion in passing laws that have the inevitable effect of treating some people differently from others, and legislative classifications are valid unless they bear no rational relationship to a permissible state objective. New York City Transit Authority v. Beazer, 440 U.S. 568; Vance v. Bradley, 440 U.S. 93; Massachusetts Bd. of Retirement v. Murgia, 427 U.S. 307, 314; Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, 485.

Not all legislation, however, is entitled to the same presumption of validity. The presumption is not present when a State has enacted legislation whose purpose or effect is to create classes based upon racial criteria, since racial classifications, in a constitutional sense, are inherently "suspect." McLaughlin v. Florida, 379 U.S. 184; Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483. And the presumption of statutory validity may also be undermined when a State has enacted legislation creating classes based upon certain other immutable human attributes. See, e.g., Oyama v. California, 332 U.S. 633 (national origin); Graham v. Richardson, 403 U.S. 365 (alienage); Gomez v. Perez, 409 U.S. 535 (illegitimacy); Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71 (gender).

In the absence of invidious discrimination, however, a court is not free under [99 S.Ct. 1746] the aegis of the Equal Protection Clause to substitute its judgment for the will of the people of a State as expressed in the laws passed by their popularly elected legislatures.

The Constitution presumes that, absent some reason to infer antipathy, even improvident decisions will eventually be rectified by the democratic process, and that judicial intervention is generally unwarranted no matter how unwisely we may think a political branch has acted.

Vance v. Bradley, 440 U.S. at 97 (footnote omitted). The threshold

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question, therefore, is whether the Georgia statute is invidiously discriminatory. If it is not, it is entitled to a presumption of validity, and will be upheld

unless the varying treatment of different groups or persons is so unrelated to the achievement of any combination of legitimate purposes that we can only conclude that the legislature's actions were irrational.

Ibid.

III

The appellant relies on decisions of the Court that have invalidated statutory classifications based upon illegitimacy and upon gender to support his claim that the Georgia statute is unconstitutional. Both of these lines of cases have involved laws reflecting invidious discrimination against a particular class. We conclude, however, that neither line of decisions is applicable in the present case.

A

The Court has held on several occasions that state legislative...

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