483 U. S. 574
June 25, 1987
Gregory Rivera was the alleged father of Jean Marie Minnich’s baby. When Minnich sought to establish his paternity in court, Rivera protested that the ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard (i.e. more likely than not) was far too low. In a case called Santosky, the Supreme Court had held, on the basis of the Due Process clause, that parental rights could only be terminated upon the showing of ‘clear and convincing evidence’ – a much higher standard. Rivera argued that the standard for establishing paternity should be the same as that for ending it.
The Court ruled 8-1 that ‘preponderance of the evidence’ was an acceptable standard. Stevens emphasized that most states used that standard to establish paternity, and accordingly the Court should be wary of demanding a higher standard. He also rejected the claim that Santosky required legal symmetry in the burden of proof. Destroying the parent-child relationship is an extraordinary step, since it interferes with a familial bond of paramount importance. Requiring a father to own up to a familial bond which has already been created was very different in character. Stevens also said that the low proof standard was necessary to protect the interests of the mother and child.
O’Connor concurred in judgment – she had disagreed even with Santosky’s imposition of the ‘clear and convicing’ standard for termination. Brennan was the lonely dissenter. The financial consequences of paternity were so profound, and the penalties for shirking them so severe, that he felt a higher standard of proof was warranted. Furthermore, Brennan pointed out that parenthood possesses ineffable moral and emotional dimensions. Such an important relationship should not be formed based on mere 51%-49% probability. He concluded by observing that lying does occur in contested paternity suits, and that existing technology to determine parenthood was now 99% accurate.
Despite its brevity, and its surprisingly restrained dissent, this is easily one of the worst decisions of the entire term. Brennan was totally right, and he should have been far more forceful (Digression: for four pages in United States Reports, we saw the rarest of all sights – William Brennan actually acting like a Roman Catholic. Passenger Pigeon sightings may or may not be more common). Parenthood is far too important to play probability games with, especially when technology can now provide definitive answers. Quite apart from the rights of the alleged father, a child ought to have the right to know for certain that the man the legal system calls his father truly is so.