Trimble v. Gordon

Decision Date26 April 1977
Docket NumberNo. 75-5952,75-5952
Citation97 S.Ct. 1459,430 U.S. 762,52 L.Ed.2d 31
PartiesDeta Mona TRIMBLE and Jessie Trimble, Appellants, v. Joseph Roosevelt GORDON et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Section 12 of the Illinois Probate Act, which allows illegitimate children to inherit by intestate succession only from their mothers (though under Illinois law legitimate children may inherit by intestate succession from both their mothers and their fathers), held to violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 766-776.

(a) A classification based on illegitimacy such as that challenged here is not "suspect" so as to require that it survive "strict scrutiny," Mathews v. Lucas, 427 U.S. 495, 506, 96 S.Ct. 2755, 2763, 49 L.Ed.2d 651. Nevertheless, this Court requires, "at a minimum, that a statutory classification bear some rational relationship to a legitimate state purpose," Weber v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 406 U.S. 164, 172, 92 S.Ct. 1400, 1405, 31 L.Ed.2d 768, and the Court's previous decisions in this area show that the standard is "not a toothless one." Mathews v. Lucas, supra, 427 U.S., at 510, 96 S.Ct., at 2764. P. 767.

(b) Section 12 cannot be justified on the ground that it promotes legitimate family relationships. A State may not attempt to influence the actions of men and women by imposing sanctions on the children born of their illegitimate relationships. Pp. 768-770.

(c) Difficulties of proving paternity in some situations do not justify the total statutory disinheritance of illegitimate children whose fathers die intestate. Section 12 is not "carefully tuned to alternative considerations," Mathews v. Lucas, supra, 427 U.S., at 513, 96 S.Ct., at 2766, as is illustrated by the fact that in the instant case the decedent had been determined to be the appellant child's father in a state-court paternity action. Pp. 770-773.

(d) The fact that appellant's father could have provided for her by making a will does not save § 12 from invalidity under the Equal Protection Clause. Pp. 773-774.

(e) Though appellees contend that § 12 should be sustained on the theory that it represents the legislature's attempt to mirror the intent of Illinois decedents, the Illinois Supreme Court in construing the law did not rely upon a theory of presumed intent, and this Court's own examination of the statutory provision discloses no such legislative intent; rather, as the State Supreme Court indicated, § 12's primary purpose was to provide a system of intestate succession more just to illegitimate children than the previous law, tempered by the secondary interest in protecting against spurious paternity claims. Pp. 774-776.

Reversed and remanded.

James D. Weill, Chicago, Ill., for appellants.

Miles N. Beermann, Chicago, Ill., for appellees.

Mr. Justice POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

At issue in this case is the constitutionality of § 12 of the Illinois Probate Act 1 which allows illegitimate children to inherit by intestate succession only from their mothers. Under Illinois law, legitimate children are allowed to inherit by intestate succession from both their mothers and their fathers. 2

I

Appellant Deta Mona Trimble is the illegitimate daughter of appellant Jessie Trimble 3 and Sherman Gordon. Trimble and Gordon lived in Chicago with Deta Mona from 1970 until Gordon died in 1974, the victim of a homicide. On January 2, 1973, the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill., had entered a paternity order finding Gordon to be the father of Deta Mona and ordering him to pay $15 per week for her support.4 Gordon thereafter supported Deta Mona in accordance with the paternity order and openly acknowledged her as his child. He died intestate at the age of 28, leaving an estate consisting only of a 1974 Plymouth automobile worth approximately $2,500.

Shortly after Gordon's death, Trimble, as the mother and next friend of Deta Mona, filed a petition for letters of administration, determination of heirship, and declaratory relief in the Probate Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill. That court entered an order determining heirship, identifying as the only heirs of Gordon his father, Joseph Gordon, his mother, Ethel King, and his brother, two sisters, and a half brother.5 All of these individuals are appellees in this appeal, but only appellee King has filed a brief.

The Circuit Court excluded Deta Mona on the authority of the negative implications of § 12 of the Illinois Probate Act, which provides in relevant part:

"An illegitimate child is heir of his mother and of any maternal ancestor, and of any person from whom his mother might have inherited, if living; and the lawful issue of an illegitimate person shall represent such person and take, by descent, any estate which the parent would have taken, if living. A child who was illegitimate whose parents inter-marry and who is acknowledged by the father as the father's child is legitimate." 6

If Deta Mona had been a legitimate child, she would have inherited her father's entire estate under Illinois law.7 In rejecting Deta Mona's claim of heirship, the court sustained the constitutionality of § 12.

After a notice of appeal was filed, the Illinois Supreme Court entered an order allowing direct appeal of the decision of the Circuit Court, bypassing the Illinois Appellate Court. Appellants were granted leave to file an amicus brief in two pending consolidated appeals which presented similar challenges to the constitutionality of § 12. On June 2, 1975, the Illinois Supreme Court handed down its opinion in In re Estate of Karas, 61 Ill.2d 40, 329 N.E.2d 234 (1975), sustaining § 12 against all constitutional challenges, including those presented in appellants' amicus brief.8 On September 24, 1975, oral argument was held in the instant case. Chief Justice Underwood orally delivered the opinion of the court from the bench, affirming the decision of the Circuit Court on the authority of Karas. A final judgment was entered on October 15, 1975.9

We noted probable jurisdiction to consider the arguments that § 12 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by invidiously discriminating on the basis of illegitimacy and sex.10 424 U.S. 964, 96 S.Ct. 1457, 47 L.Ed.2d 731 (1976). We now reverse. As we conclude that the statutory discrimination against illegitimate children is unconstitutional, we do not reach the sex discrimination argument.

II

In Karas, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected the equal protection challenge to the discrimination against illegitimate children on the explicit authority of Labine v. Vincent, 401 U.S. 532, 91 S.Ct. 1017, 28 L.Ed.2d 288 (1971). The court found that § 12 is supported by the state interests in encouraging family relationships and in establishing an accurate and efficient method of disposing of property at death. The court also found the Illinois law unobjectionable because no "insurmountable barrier" prevented illegitimate children from sharing in the estates of their fathers. By leaving a will, Sherman Gordon could have assured Deta Mona a share of his estate.

Appellees endorse the reasoning of the Illinois Supreme Court and suggest additional justifications for the statute. In weighing the constitutional sufficiency of these justifications, we are guided by our previous decisions involving equal protection challenges to laws discriminating on the basis of illegitimacy.11 "(T)his Court requires, at a minimum, that a statutory classification bear some rational relationship to a legitimate state purpose." Weber v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 406 U.S. 164, 172, 92 S.Ct. 1400, 1405, 31 L.Ed.2d 768 (1972). In this context, the standard just stated is a minimum; the Court sometimes requires more. "Though the latitude given state economic and social regulation is necessarily broad, when state statutory classifications approach sensitive and fundamental personal rights, this Court exercises a stricter scrutiny . . . ." Ibid.

(1) Appellants urge us to hold that classifications based on illegitimacy are "suspect," so that any justifications must survive "strict scrutiny." We considered and rejected a similar argument last Term in Mathews v. Lucas, 427 U.S. 495, 96 S.Ct. 2755, 49 L.Ed.2d 651 (1976). As we recognized in Lucas, illegitimacy is analogous in many respects to the personal characteristics that have been held to be suspect when used as the basis of statutory differentiations. Id., at 505, 96 S.Ct., at 2762. We nevertheless concluded that the analogy was not sufficient to require "our most exacting scrutiny." Id., at 506, 96 S.Ct., at 2763. Despite the conclusion that classifications based on illegitimacy fall in a "realm of less than strictest scrutiny," Lucas also establishes that the scrutiny "is not a toothless one," id., at 510, 96 S.Ct., at 2764, a proposition clearly demonstrated by our previous decisions in this area.12

III

The Illinois Supreme Court prefaced its discussion of the state interests served by § 12 with a general discussion of the purpose of the statute. Quoting from its earlier opinions, the court concluded that the statute was enacted to ameliorate the harsh common-law rule under which an illegitimate child was filius nullius and incapable of inheriting from anyone. 61 Ill.2d, at 44-45, 329 N.E.2d, at 236-237. Although § 12 did not bring illegitimate children into parity with legitimate children, it did improve their position, thus partially achieving the asserted objective. The sufficiency of the justifications advanced for the remaining discrimination against illegitimate children must be considered in light of this motivating purpose.

A.

(2) The Illinois Supreme Court relied in part on the State's purported interest in "the promotion of (legitimate) family relationships." 61 Ill.2d, at 48, 329 N.E.2d, at 238. Although the court noted that this justification had been accepted in Labine, the opinion contains only the most perfunctory analysis. This...

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