Lehr v. Robertson

Decision Date27 June 1983
Docket NumberNo. 81-1756,81-1756
Citation77 L.Ed.2d 614,103 S.Ct. 2985,463 U.S. 248
PartiesJonathan LEHR, Appellant, v. Lorraine ROBERTSON et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Appellant is the putative father of a child born out of wedlock. Appellee mother of the child married another man (also an appellee) after the child was born. Subsequently, when the child was over two years old appellees filed an adoption petition in the Ulster County, N.Y., Family Court, which entered an order of adoption. Appellant never supported the child or offered to marry appellee mother, did not enter his name in New York's "putative father registry," which would have entitled him to notice of the adoption proceeding, and was not in any of the classes of putative fathers who are required by New York law to receive notice of adoption proceedings. After the adoption proceeding was commenced, appellant filed a paternity petition in the Westchester County, N.Y., Family Court. Appellant 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 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.

Held:

1. Appellant's rights under the Due Process Clause were not violated. Pp. 256-265.

(a) Where an unwed father demonstrates a full commitment to the responsibilities of parenthood by "com[ing] forward to participate in the rearing of his child," Caban v. Mohammed, 441 U.S. 380, 392, 99 S.Ct. 1760, 1768, 60 L.Ed.2d 297, his interest in personal contact with his child acquires substantial protection under the Due Process Clause. But the mere existence of a biological link does not merit equivalent protection. If the natural father fails to grasp the opportunity to develop a relationship with his child, the Constitution will not automatically compel a State to listen to his opinion of where the child's best interests lie. Pp. 256-263.

(b) Here, New York has adequately protected appellant's inchoate interest in assuming a responsible role in the future of his child. Under New York's special statutory scheme, the right to receive notice was completely within appellant's control. By mailing a postcard to the pu- tative father registry, he could have guaranteed that he would receive notice of any adoption proceedings. The State's conclusion that a more open-ended notice re uirement would merely complicate the adoption process, threaten the privacy interests of unwed mothers, create the risk of unnecessary controversy, and impair the desired finality of adoption decrees, cannot be characterized as arbitrary. The Constitution does not require either the trial judge or a litigant to give special notice to nonparties who are presumptively capable of asserting and protecting their own rights. Pp. 263-265.

2. Nor were appellant's rights under the Equal Protection Clause violated. Because he has never established a substantial relationship with his child, the New York statutes at issue did not operate to deny him equal protection. Cf. Quilloin v. Walcott, 434 U.S. 246, 98 S.Ct. 549, 54 L.Ed.2d 511. Appellee mother had a continuous custodial responsibility for the child, whereas appellant never established any custodial, personal, or financial relationship with the child. In such circumstances, the Equal Protection Clause does not prevent a State from according the two parents different legal rights. Caban v. Mohammed, supra, distinguished. Pp. ---- - ----.

54 N.Y. 417, 446 N.Y.S.2d 20, 430 N.E.2d 896 (1981), affirmed.

David J. Freeman, White Plains, N.Y., for appellant.

Jay L. Samoff, Kingston, N.Y., for appellees.

Robert Abrams, Atty.Gen., pro se.

Peter H. Schiff and Robert J. Schack, Asst. Attys. Gen., Albany, N.Y., filed a brief for appellee Atty.Gen. of N.Y.

STEVENS, Justice.

The question presented is whether New York has sufficiently protected an unmarried father's inchoate relationship with a child whom he has never supported and rarely seen in the two years since her birth. The appellant, Jonathan Lehr, claims that the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, as interpreted in Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 92 S.Ct. 1208, 31 L.Ed.2d 551 (1972), and Caban v. Mohammed, 441 U.S. 380, 99 S.Ct. 1760, 60 L.Ed.2d 297 (1979), give him an absolute right to notice and an opportunity to be heard before the child may be adopted. We disagree.

Jessica M. was born out of wedlock on November 9, 1976. Her mother, Lorraine Robertson, married Richard Robertson eight months after Jessica's birth.1 On December 21, 1978, when Jessica was over two years old, the Robertsons filed an adoption petition in the Family Court of Ulster County, New York. The court heard their testimony and received a favorable report from the Ulster County Department of Social Services. On March 7, 1979, the court entered an order of adoption.2 In this proceeding, appellant contends that the adoption order is invalid because he, Jessica's putative father, was not given advance notice of the adoption proceeding.3

The State of New York maintains a "putative father registry." 4 A man who files with that registry demonstrates his intent to claim paternity of a child born out of wedlock and is therefore entitled to receive notice of any proceeding to adopt that child. Before entering Jessica's adoption order, the Ulster County Family Court had the putative father registry examined. Although appellant claims to be Jessica's natural father, he had not entered his name in the registry.

In addition to the persons whose names are listed on the putative father registry, New York law requires that notice of an adoption proceeding be given to several other classes of possible fathers of children born out of wedlock—those who have been adjudicated to be the father, those who have been identified as the father on the child's birth certificate, those who live openly with the child and the child's mother and who hold themselves out to be the father, those who have been identified as the father by the mother in a sworn written statement, and those who were married to the child's mother before the child was six months old.5 Appellant admittedly was not a member of any of those classes. He had lived with appellee prior to Jessica's birth and visited her in the hospital when Jessica was born, but his name does not appear on Jessica's birth certificate. He did not live with appellee or Jessica after Jessica's birth, he has never provided them with any financial support, and he has never offered to marry appellee. Nevertheless, he contends that the following special circumstances gave him a constitutional right to notice and a hearing before Jessica was adopted.

On January 30, 1979, one month after the adoption proceeding was commenced in Ul ter County, appellant filed a "visitation and paternity petition" in the Westchester County Family Court. In that petition, he asked for a determination of paternity, an order of support, and reasonable visitation privileges with Jessica. Notice of that proceeding was served on appellee on February 22, 1979. Four days later appellee's attorney informed the Ulster County Court that appellant had commenced a paternity proceeding in Westchester County; the Ulster County judge then entered an order staying appellant's paternity proceeding until he could rule on a motion to change the venue of that proceeding to Ulster County. On March 3, 1979, appellant received notice of the change of venue motion and, for the first time, learned that an adoption proceeding was pending in Ulster County.

On March 7, 1979, appellant's attorney telephoned the Ulster County judge to inform him that he planned to seek a stay of the adoption proceeding pending the determination of the paternity petition. In that telephone conversation, the judge advised the lawyer that he had already signed the adoption order earlier that day. According to appellant's attorney, the judge stated that he was aware of the pending paternity petition but did not believe he was required to give notice to appellant prior to the entry of the order of adoption.

Thereafter, the Family Court in Westchester County granted appellee's motion to dismiss the paternity petition, holding that the putative father's right to seek paternity ". . . must be deemed severed so long as an order of adoption exists." App. 228. Appellant did not appeal from that dismissal.6 On June 22, 1979, appellant filed a petition to vacate the order of adoption on the ground that it was obtained by fraud and in violation of his constitutional rights. The Ulster County Family Court received written and oral argument on the question whether it had "dropped the ball" by approving the adoption without giving appellant advance notice. Tr. 53. After deliberating for several months, it denied the petition, explaining its decision in a thorough written opinion. In the Matter of the Adoption by Lorraine and Richard Robertson of Jessica Martz, 102 Misc.2d 102, 423 N.Y.S.2d 378 (1979).

The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court affirmed. In the Matter of the Adoption of Jessica "XX", 77 App.Div.2d 381, 434 N.Y.S.2d 772 (1980). The majority held that appellant's commencement of a paternity action did not give him any right to receive notice of the adoption proceeding, that the notice provisions of the statute were constitutional, and that Caban v. Mohammed, 441 U.S. 380, 99 S.Ct. 1760, 60 L.Ed.2d 297 (1979), was not retroactive.7 Parenthetically, the majority observed that appellant "could have insured his right to...

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