Palmore v. Sidoti
Decided on Apr. 25, 1984; 466 US 294


A. Issues Discussed: Civil rights

B. Legal Question Presented:

Do the effects of racial prejudice justify removing a child from the custody of its natural mother?


A. Background:

"When petitioner Linda Sidoti Palmore and respondent Anthony J. Sidoti, both Caucasians, were divorced in May 1980 in Florida, the mother was awarded custody of their 3-year-old daughter.

In September 1981 the father sought custody of the child by filing a petition to modify the prior judgment because of changed conditions. The change was that the child's mother was then cohabiting with a Negro, Clarence Palmore, Jr., whom she married two months later...

[T]he court made a finding that 'there is no issue as to either party's devotion to the child, adequacy of housing facilities, or respectability of the new spouse of either parent.'

The court then addressed the recommendations of the court counselor, who had made an earlier report 'in [another] case coming out of this circuit also involving the social consequences of an interracial marriage.' From this vague reference to that earlier case, the court turned to the present case and noted the counselor's recommendation for a change in custody because '[t]he wife [petitioner] has chosen for herself and for her child, a life-style unacceptable to the father and to society... The child... is, or at school age will be, subject to environmental pressures not of choice.'

The court then concluded that the best interests of the child would be served by awarding custody to the father. The court's rationale is contained in the following: 'The father's evident resentment of the mother's choice of a black partner is not sufficient to wrest custody from the mother. It is of some significance, however, that the mother did see fit to bring a man into her home and carry on a sexual relationship with him without being married to him. Such action tended to place gratification of her own desires ahead of her concern for the child's future welfare. This Court feels that despite the strides that have been made in bettering relations between the races in this country, it is inevitable that Melanie will, if allowed to remain in her present situation and attains school age and thus more vulnerable to peer pressures, suffer from the social stigmatization that is sure to come.'

The Second District Court of Appeal affirmed without opinion thus denying the Florida Supreme Court jurisdiction to review the case."

On certiorari the US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Second District Court of Appeal of Florida.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Brief of amici curiae urging urging reversal were filed for the United States by Solicitor General Lee, Assistant Attorney General Reynolds, Deputy Solicitor General Wallace, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Cooper, Kathryn A. Oberly, and Brian K. Landsberg; for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation et al. by Burt Neuborne, William D. Zabel, Marcia Robinson Lowry, Thomas I. Atkins, Ira G. Greenberg, and Samuel Rabinove; for Leigh Earls et al. by Jay L. Carlson, James P. Tuite, Roderic V. O. Boggs, James D. Weill, Justin J. Finger, Jeffrey P. Sinensky, Leslie K. Shedlin, and Marc D. Stern; and for the Women's Legal Defense Fund et al. by Sally Katzen, Lynn Bregman, and Nancy Polikoff.

Robert J. Shapiro argued the cause and filed a brief for petitioner.

John E. Hawtrey argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent.


"The judgment of a state court determining or reviewing a child custody decision is not ordinarily a likely candidate for review by this Court. However, the court's opinion, after stating that the 'father's evident resentment of the mother's choice of a black partner is not sufficient' to deprive her of custody, then turns to what it regarded as the damaging impact on the child from remaining in a racially mixed household. This raises important federal concerns arising from the Constitution's commitment to eradicating discrimination based on race...

The court correctly stated that the child's welfare was the controlling factor. But that court was entirely candid and made no effort to place its holding on any ground other than race. Taking the court's findings and rationale at face value, it is clear that the outcome would have been different had petitioner married a Caucasian male of similar respectability.

A core purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to do away with all governmentally imposed discrimination based on race. Classifying persons according to their race is more likely to reflect racial prejudice than legitimate public concerns; the race, not the person, dictates the category. Such classifications are subject to the most exacting scrutiny; to pass constitutional muster, they must be justified by a compelling governmental interest and must be 'necessary... to the accomplishment' of their legitimate purpose...

It would ignore reality to suggest that racial and ethnic prejudices do not exist or that all manifestations of those prejudices have been eliminated. There is a risk that a child living with a stepparent of a different race may be subject to a variety of pressures and stresses not present if the child were living with parents of the same racial or ethnic origin.

The question, however, is whether the reality of private biases and the possible injury they might inflict are permissible considerations for removal of an infant child from the custody of its natural mother. We have little difficulty concluding that they are not. The Constitution cannot control such prejudices but neither can it tolerate them. Private biases may be outside the reach of the law, but the law cannot, directly or indirectly, give them effect...

Whatever problems racially mixed households may pose for children in 1984 can no more support a denial of constitutional rights than could the stresses that residential integration was thought to entail in 1917. The effects of racial prejudice, however real, cannot justify a racial classification removing an infant child from the custody of its natural mother found to be an appropriate person to have such custody."

The US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Second District Court of Appeal of Florida.

Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con

  • Burger, W. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S.D. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.P. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Pro (Joined majority opinion)

    The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged reversal of the Second District Court of Appeal of Florida's judgment; the Supreme Court reversed in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.