Lehr v. Robertson
Annotate this Case
463 U.S. 248 (1983)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Lehr v. Robertson, 463 U.S. 248 (1983)
Lehr v. Robertson
Argued December 7, 1982
Decided June 27, 1983
463 U.S. 248
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 entitled under 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.
1. Appellant's rights under the Due Process Clause were not violated. Pp. 463 U. S. 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, 441 U. S. 392, 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. 463 U. S. 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 putative
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 requirement 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. 463 U. S. 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. 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. 463 U. S. 265-268.
54 N.Y.2d 417, 430 N.E.2d 896, affirmed.
STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., fled a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 463 U. S. 268.