Caban v. Mohammed - 441 U.S. 380 (1979)
U.S. Supreme Court
Caban v. Mohammed, 441 U.S. 380 (1979)
Caban v. Mohammed
Argued November 6, 1978
Decided April 24, 1979
441 U.S. 380
Appellant and appellee Maria Mohammed lived together out of wedlock for several years in New York City, during which time two children were born. Appellant, who was identified as the father on the birth certificates, contributed to the children's support. After the couple separated, Maria took the children and married her present husband (also an appellee). During the next two years, appellant frequently saw or otherwise maintained contact with the children. Appellees subsequently petitioned for adoption of the children, and appellant filed a cross-petition. The Surrogate granted appellees' petition under § 111 of the New York Domestic Relations Law, which permits an unwed mother, but not an unwed father, to block the adoption of their child simply by withholding her consent. Rejecting appellant's contention that § 111 is unconstitutional, the state appellate courts affirmed on the basis of In re Malpica-Orsini, 36 N.Y.2d 568, 331 N.E.2d 486. In that case, the New York Court of Appeals held that § 111 furthered the interests of illegitimate children, for whom adoption is often the best course, reasoning that people wishing to adopt a child born out of wedlock would be discouraged if the natural father could prevent adoption merely by withholding his consent. Moreover, the court suggested that, if the consent of the natural father were required, adoptions would be jeopardized because of his unavailability.
1. Contrary to appellees' contention, it is clear that § 111 treats unmarried parents differently according to their sex. The section's consent requirement is no mere formality, since the New York courts have held that the question of whether consent is required is entirely separate from the consideration of the best interests of the child. In this very case, the Surrogate held that adoption by appellant was impermissible absent Maria's consent, whereas adoption by Maria and her husband could be prevented by appellant only if he could show that such adoption would not be in the children's best interests. Pp. 441 U. S. 387-388.
2. The sex-based distinction in § 111 between unmarried mothers and unmarried fathers violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it bears no substantial relation to any important state interest. Pp. 441 U. S. 388-394.
(a) Maternal and paternal roles are not invariably different in importance. Even if unwed mothers as a class were closer than unwed fathers to their newborn infants, the generalization concerning parent-child relations would become less acceptable to support legislative distinctions as the child's age increased. P. 441 U. S. 389.
(b) Unwed fathers are no more likely to oppose adoption of their children than are unwed mothers. Pp. 441 U. S. 391-392.
(c) Even if special difficulties in locating and identifying unwed fathers at birth warranted a legislative distinction between mothers and fathers of newborns, such difficulties need not persist past infancy; and in those instances where, unlike the present case, the father has not participated in the rearing of the child, nothing in the Equal Protection Clause precludes the State from withholding from him the privilege of vetoing the adoption of that child. Pp. 441 U. S. 392-393.
43 N.Y.2d 708, 372 N.E.2d 42, reversed.
POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 441 U. S. 394. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 441 U. S. 401.