Pickett v. Brown,
Annotate this Case
462 U.S. 1 (1983)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Pickett v. Brown, 462 U.S. 1 (1982)
Pickett v. Brown
Argued April 27, 1983
Decided June 6, 1983
462 U.S. 1
Under Tennessee law, the father of an illegitimate child is responsible for the child's support. Enforcement of this obligation depends on the establishment of paternity. A Tennessee statute provides that a paternity and support action must be filed within two years of the child's birth unless the father has provided support or has acknowledged his paternity in writing, or unless the child is, or is liable to become, a public charge, in which case the State or any person can bring suit at any time prior to the child's 18th birthday. In May, 1978, appellant mother of an illegitimate child born in November, 1968, brought a paternity and support action in the Tennessee Juvenile Court against appellee Brown, who moved to dismiss the action on the ground that it was barred by the 2-year limitations period. The court held that the limitations period violated, inter alia, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, because it imposed a restriction on the support rights of some illegitimate children that was not imposed on the identical rights of legitimate children. The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed and upheld the constitutionality of the 2-year limitations period.
Held: The 2-year limitations period in question denies certain illegitimate children the equal protection of the law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 462 U. S. 7-18.
(a) Restrictions on support suits by illegitimate children "will survive equal protection scrutiny to the extent they are substantially related to a legitimate state interest." Mills v. Habluetzel, 456 U. S. 91, 456 U. S. 99. The period for obtaining paternal support has to be long enough to provide a
reasonable opportunity for those with an interest in illegitimate children to bring suit on their behalf; and any time limit on that opportunity has to be substantially related to the State's interest in preventing the litigation of stale or fraudulent claims. Id. at 465 U. S. 99-100. Pp. 462 U. S. 7-11.
(b) Here, the 2-year limitations period does not provide an illegitimate child who is not covered by one of the exceptions in the statute with an adequate opportunity to obtain support. The mother's financial difficulties caused by the child's birth, the loss of income attributable to the need to care for the child, continuing affection for the child's father, a desire to avoid family and community disapproval, and emotional strain and confusion that often attend the birth of an illegitimate child, all may inhibit a mother from filing a paternity suit within two years after the child's birth. Pp. 462 U. S. 12-13.
(c) Nor is the 2-year limitations period substantially related to the legitimate state interest in preventing the litigation of stale or fraudulent claims. It amounts to a restriction effectively extinguishing the support rights of illegitimate children that cannot be justified by the problems of proof surrounding paternity actions. The State's argument that the different treatment accorded legitimate and illegitimate children is substantially related to the above legitimate state interest is seriously undermined by the exception for illegitimate children who are, or are likely to become, public charges, since claims filed on behalf of these children when they are more than two years old would be just as stale or as vulnerable to fraud as claims filed on behalf of illegitimate children who are not public charges at the same age. Moreover, the fact that Tennessee tolls most actions during a child's minority, when considered in combination with the above factors, leads one to question whether the burden placed on illegitimate children is designed to advance permissible state interests. And the advances in blood testing render more attenuated the relationship between a statute of limitations and the State's interest in preventing the litigation of stale or fraudulent claims. Pp. 462 U. S. 13-18.
638 S.W.2d 369, reversed and remanded.
BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.