Lehr v. Robertson
463 U.S. 248 (1983)

Facts:

  • Jonathan Lehr and Lorraine Robertson had a child, Jessica M., out of wedlock.
  • 8 months later, Lorraine married Richard Robertson, and the two adopted Jessica when she was two-years-old.
  • Jonathan then filed a petition to vacate and/or set aside the order because he wasn’t given notice and an opportunity to be heard before Jessica was adopted.
  • He argued:
    • (1) A putative father’s actual or potential relationship with a child born out of wedlock is an interest in liberty which may not be destroyed without due process of law; and
    • (2) The gender-based classification in the statute, which both denied him the right to consent to Jessica’s adoption and accorded him fewer procedural rights than her mother, violated the Equal Protection Clause.
  • NY law required notice for adoption proceedings for several classes of possible fathers (e.g., those adjudicated to be the father, those identified on the birth certificate, those who live with the child, etc.).
    • Note: Illegitimate mothers were always in the class.
  • Those not in one of the classes were required to file in the “putative father registry” to receive notice.
    • All states have these. Basically put everyone on notice that you believe you’re the father of a child.
  • Jonathan, who practically never saw his daughter, was not in any of the classes and never filed with the registry.

History:

  • The Family Court denied the petition.
  • The Appellate Division affirmed.

Issue:
Whether New York has sufficiently protected an unmarried father’s inchoate relationship with a child whom he has never supported and rarely seen in the two years since her birth.

Holding:
Yes. Affirmed.

Reasoning:
(1) Due Process

  • “When an unwed father demonstrates a full commitment to the responsibilities of parenthood by coming forward to participate in the rearing of his child, his interest in personal contact with his child acquires substantial protection under the due process clause. At that point it may be said that he acts as a father toward his children. But the mere existence of a biological link does not merit equivalent constitutional protection.”
  • Here, Jonathan had never had any significant custodial, personal, or financial relationship with Jessica, and he did not seek to establish a legal tie until after she was two years old.
  • His right to receive notice was completely within his control (all he had to do was mail a postcard to the registry).

(2) Equal Protection

  • “As we noted above, the existence or nonexistence of a substantial relationship between parent and child is a relevant criterion in evaluating both the rights of the parent and the best interests of the child… Because…appellant has never established a substantial relationship with his daughter, the New York statutes at issue in this case did not operate to deny appellant equal protection.”
    • Q: How does this make sense when illegitimate mothers with no relationship are still entitled to notice?

Rule: Due Process does NOT require that notice be given in all cases to a biological father of the pendency of an adoption proceeding concerning the child.

Rule: It is an unwed father’s commitment parental responsibilities that establishes protection under the Due Process Clause.