Quilloin v. Walcott

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation434 U.S. 246,98 S.Ct. 549,54 L.Ed.2d 511
Docket NumberNo. 76-6372,76-6372
PartiesLeon Webster QUILLOIN, Appellant, v. Ardell Williams WALCOTT et al. Arg ed
Decision Date09 November 1977

See 435 U.S. 918, 98 S.Ct. 1477.


Under Georgia law no adoption of a child born in wedlock is permitted without the consent of each living parent (including divorced or separated parents) who has not voluntarily surrendered rights in the child or been adjudicated an unfit parent. In contrast, §§ 74-403(3) and 74-203 of the Georgia Code provide that only the mother's consent is required for the adoption of an illegitimate child. However, the father may acquire veto authority over the adoption if he has legitimated the child pursuant to § 74-103 of the Code. These provisions were applied to deny appellant, the father of an illegitimate child, authority to prevent the adoption of the child by the husband of the child's mother. Until the adoption petition was filed, appellant had not attempted to legitimate the child, who had always been in the mother's custody and was then living with the mother and her husband, appellees. In opposing the adoption appellant, seeking to legitimate the child but not to secure custody, claimed that §§ 74-203 and 74-403(3), as applied to his case, violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The trial court, granting the adoption on the ground that it was in the "best interests of the child" and that legitimation by appellant was not, rejected appellant's constitutional claims, and the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed. Held :

1. Under the circumstances appellant's substantive rights under the Due Process Clause were not violated by application of a "best interests of the child" standard. This is not a case in which the unwed father at any time had, or sought, custody of his child or in which the proposed adoption would place the child with a new set of parents with whom the child had never lived. Rather, the result of adoption here is to give full recognition to an existing family unit. Pp. 254-255.

2. Equal protection principles do not require that appellant's authority to veto an adoption be measured by the same standard as is applied to a divorced father, from whose interests appellant's interests are readily distinguishable. The State was not foreclosed from recognizing the difference in the extent of commitment to a child's welfare between that of appellant, an unwed father who has never shouldered any significant responsibility for the child's rearing, and that of a divorced father who at least will have borne full responsibility for his child's rearing during the period of marriage. P. 255-256.

238 Ga. 230, 232 S.E.2d 246, affirmed.

William L. Skinner, Decatur, Ga., for appellant.

Thomas F. Jones, Atlanta, Ga., for appellees, [i]pro hac vice, by special leave of Court.

Mr. Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue in this case is the constitutionality of Georgia's adoption laws as applied to deny an unwed father authority to prevent adoption of his illegitimate child. The child was born in December 1964 and has been in the custody and control of his mother, appellee Ardell Williams Walcott, for his entire life. The mother and the child's natural father, appellant Leon Webster Quilloin, never married each other or established a home together, and in September 1967 the mother married appellee Randall Walcott.1 In March 1976, she consented to adoption of the child by her husband, who immediately filed a petition for adoption. Appellant attempted to block the adoption and to secure visitation rights, but he did not seek custody or object to the child's continuing to live with appellees. Although appellant was not found to be an unfit parent the adoption was granted over his objection.

In Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 92 S.Ct. 1208, 31 L.Ed.2d 551 (1972), this Court held that the State of Illinois was barred, as a matter of both due process and equal protection, from taking custody of the children of an unwed father, absent a hearing and a particular- ized finding that the father was an unfit parent. The Court concluded, on the one hand, that a father's interest in the "companionship, care, custody, and management" of his children is "cognizable and substantial," id., at 651-652, 92 S.Ct., at 1212-13, and, on the other hand, that the State's interest in caring for the children is "de minimis" if the father is in fact a fit parent, id., at 657-658, 92 S.Ct., at 1215-1216. Stanley left unresolved the degree of protection a State must afford to the rights of an unwed father in a situation, such as that presented here, in which the countervailing interests are more substantial.


Generally speaking, under Georgia law a child born in wedlock cannot be adopted without the consent of each living parent who has not voluntarily surrendered rights in the child or been adjudicated an unfair parent.2 Even where the child's parents are divorced or separated at the time of the adoption proceedings, either parent may veto the adoption. In contrast, only the consent of the mother is required for adoption of an illegitimate child. Ga.Code § 74-403(3) (1975).3 To acquire the same veto authority possessed by other parents, the father of a child born out of wedlock must legitimate his offspring, either by marrying the mother and acknowledging the child as his own, § 74-101, or by obtaining a court order declaring the child legitimate and capable of inheriting from the father, § 74-103.4 But unless and until the child is legitimated, the mother is the only recognized parent and is given exclusive authority to exercise all parental prerogatives, § 74-203,5 including the power to veto adoption of the child.

Appellant did not petition for legitimation of his child at any time during the 11 years between the child's birth and the filing of Randall Walcott's adoption petition.6 However, in response to Walcott's petition, appellant filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus seeking visitation rights, a petition for legitimation, and an objection to the adoption.7 Shortly thereafter, appellant amended his pleadings by adding the claim that §§ 74-203 and 74-403(3) were unconstitutional as applied to his case, insofar as they denied him the rights granted to married parents, and presumed unwed fathers to be unfit as a matter of law.

The petitions for adoption, legitimation and writ of habeas corpus were consolidated for trial in the Superior Court of Fulton County, Ga. The court expressly stated that these matters were being tried on the basis of a consolidated record to allow "the biological father . . . a right to be heard with respect to any issue or other thing upon which he desire[s] to be heard, including his fitness as a parent . . . ." 8 After receiving extensive testimony from the parties and other wit- nesses, the trial court found that, although the child had never been abandoned or deprived, appellant had provided support only on an irregular basis.9 Moreover, while the child previously had visited with appellant on "many occasions," and had been given toys and gifts by appellant "from time to time," the mother had recently concluded that these contacts were having a disruptive effect on the child and on appellees' entire family.10 The child himself expressed a desire to be adopted by Randall Walcott and to take on Walcott's name,11 and the court found Walcott to be a fit and proper person to adopt the child.

On the basis of these findings, as well as findings relating to appellees' marriage and the mother's custody of the child for all of the child's life, the trial court determined that the proposed adoption was in the "best interests of [the] child." The court concluded, further, that granting either the legitimation or the visitation rights requested by appellant would not be in the "best interests of the child," and that both should consequently be denied. The court then applied §§ 74-203 and 74-403(3) to the situation at hand, and, since appellant had failed to obtain a court order granting legitimation, he was found to lack standing to object to the adoption. Ruling that appellant's constitutional claims were without merit, the court granted the adoption petition and denied the legitimation and visitation petitions.

Appellant took an appeal to the Supreme Court of Georgia, claiming that §§ 74-203 and 74-403(3), as applied by the trial court to his case, violated the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. In particular, appellant contended that he was entitled to the same power to veto an adoption as is provided under Georgia law to married or divorced parents and to unwed mothers, and, since the trial court did not make a finding of abandonment or other unfitness on the part of appellant, see n. 2, supra, the adoption of his child should not have been allowed.

Over a dissent which urged that § 74-403(3) was invalid under Stanley v. Illinois, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the trial court. 238 Ga. 230, 232 S.E.2d 246 (1977).12 The majority relied generally on the strong state policy of rearing children in a family setting, a policy which in the court's view might be thwarted if unwed fathers were required to consent to adoptions. The court also emphasized the special force of this policy under the facts of this case, pointing out that the adoption was sought by the child's stepfather, who was part of the family unit in which the child was in fact living, and that the child's natural father had not taken steps to support or legitimate the child over a period of more than 11 years. The court noted in addition that, unlike the father in Stanley, appellant had never been a de facto member of the child's family unit.

Appellant brought this appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1257(2), continuing to challenge the constitutionality of §§ 74-203 and 74-403(3) as...

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