Clark v. Jeter

486 U. S. 456

June 6, 1988

For illegitimate children, Pennsylvania had a 6 year statute of limitations for seeking child support. No statute of limitations existed for legitimate children. A single mother tried to obtain child support 10 years after her daughter’s birth, and charged that the statute of limitations violated the Equal Protection clause. The Supreme Court had previously held that classifications based on legitimacy were subjected to intermediate scrutiny.

The Supreme Court unanimously held the 6 year limit invalid under the Equal Protection clause (the Court also brushed aside a preemption challenge as not properly raised). O’Connor said that the two principal considerations under intermediate scrutiny were whether the time limit was reasonably long, and whether the time limit was strongly related toward concerns about fraud or stale evidence. In a rather conclusory manner, O’Connor posited that 6 years was still too short for a single mother to realize that she needed child support, and that advances in DNA technology made concerns about fraud or stale evidence not worth listening to. Furthermore, Pennsylvania allowed illegitimate paternity to be established more than 6 years after birth in some other contexts, making the 6 year limit for child support even less valid.

At a minimum, Rehnquist and Scalia should have dissented. This ruling is fairly blatant ipse dixit activism. 6 years is plenty of time to seek child support, and I have no sympathy for anyone who misses such a ridiculously long deadline. Illegitimacy, much like fornication in general, is a terrible thing, and not something the law should in any way encourage. Assuring single mothers that they could extract money out of the father after ignoring him for a decade was hardly the right message for the Court to send out in 1988. Back then, the illegitimacy rate was just under 30%. Now it’s just over 40%.

A Biblical family structure blesses everyone. The children are blessed, the husbands and wives are blessed, the community is blessed, and the whole nation is blessed. Striving toward a Biblical family structure will sometimes result in incidental stigmatization. O’Connor and the post-Christian Supreme Court are so horrified by incidental stigmatization of illegitimacy that they will use the Equal Protection clause to kill any law that fights illegitimacy. This may slightly lessen the stigma that a small number of illegitimate children feel, but in the aggregate, the nation is cursed by such a marshaling of priorities.

What is really worse: a 5% illegitimacy rate with some legal stigma, or a 40% illegitimacy rate with no legal stigma? Similar equations could be made for abortion or divorce. No one likes being stigmatized, but are the hurt feelings of a few really more important than the additional millions of lives scarred or even killed because divorce, single motherhood, and abortion have been made so legally easy?


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