Gomez v. Perez
Decided on Jan 17, 1973; 409 US 535

Child support case results in the upholding of illegitimate children's rights


A. Issues Discussed: 14th Amendment, equal protection clause

B. Legal Question Presented:

Can Texas laws constitutionally grant legitimate children a judicially enforceable right to financial support from their natural fathers and at the same time deny that right to illegitimate (born out of wedlock) children?


A. Background:

Appellant filed suit in a Texas District Court to seek financial support from appellee, the biological father of Appellant's minor child. The state trial judge found that appellee was indeed 'the biological father' of the child, and that the child 'needs the support and maintenance of her father.' However, the court concluded that because the child was born out of wedlock [aka illegitimate] there was no legal obligation for the father to support the child.

The Court of Civil Appeals for the Fourth Supreme Judicial District of Texas affirmed the Texas District Court ruling over the objection that the illegitimate child was being denied equal protection of law. The Texas Supreme Court refused application for a writ of error, finding there was no 'reversible error.' Appellant sought review by the US Supreme Court and the high court granted certiorari.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Stanley Dalton Wright argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the brief was Melvin N. Eichelbaumand Harry B. Adams, III.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
"The Texas law denying the right of paternal support to illegitimate children while granting it to legitimate children violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The bearing of applicable equal protection standards upon a state classification based upon legitimacy of birth. A classification based upon legitimacy of birth is invidious and requires strict scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause. No legitimate state interest, compelling or otherwise, justifies the classification by which illegitimate children are denied the right to paternal support granted to legitimate children." – ACLU brief in Gomez v. Perez.
"[T]he Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits invidious discrimination by state action. It is fundamental, however, that a state may adopt legislation creating classifications and applying different treatment to them if such action bears a rational relationship to a valid legislative purpose. Texas' authorization of support suits for legitimate, but not illegitimate children, advances valid state interests by avoiding those aspects inherent in paternity litigation which offend personal dignity, abuse the judicial process and often severely damage blameless citizens.

State legislation which is reasonable and not arbitrary does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause. The Texas child support scheme, which does not permit paternity suits, is reasonable in light of the deplorable consequences of such litigation which have been consistently experienced in other jurisdictions.

If the Court Requires Texas to permit paternity suits, it should allow the Texas Legislature to provide essential safeguards, and should afford Appellee the Opportunity to defend this action with fair notice of his rights and obligations." -- Respondent's brief of amicus curiae in support of the judgment below in Gomez v. Perez.
Opposing Side
Norman Dorsen, Eric M. Lieberman, Melvin L. Wuls, and Sanford Jay Rosen filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union as amicus curiae urging reversal.
Briefs filed as amicus curiae urging affirmance were filed by Crawford C. Martin, Nola White, Alfred Walker, J. C. Davis, and Pat Bailey for the State of Texas;  and Joseph Jaworski for the United States.

"In Texas, both at common law and under the statutes of the State, the natural father has a continuing and primary duty to support his legitimate children. That duty extends even beyond dissolution of the marriage, and is enforceable on the child's behalf in civil proceedings and, further, is the subject of criminal sanctions. The duty to support exists despite the fact that the father may not have custody of the child. The Court of Civil Appeals has held in this case that nowhere in this elaborate statutory scheme does the State recognize any enforceable duty on the part of the biological father to support his illegitimate children and that, absent a statutory duty to support, the controlling law is the Texas common-law rule that illegitimate children, unlike legitimate children, have no legal right to support from their fathers. It is also true that fathers may set up illegitimacy as a defense to prosecutions for criminal nonsupport of their children…

We have held that under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment a State may not create a right of action in favor of children for the wrongful death of a parent and exclude illegitimate children from the benefit of such a right. Similarly, we have held that illegitimate children may not be excluded from sharing equally with other children in the recovery of workmen's compensation benefits for the death of their parent Under these decisions, a State may not invidiously discriminate against illegitimate children by denying them substantial benefits accorded children generally. We therefore hold that once a State posits a judicially enforceable right on behalf of children to needed support from their natural fathers there is no constitutionally sufficient justification for denying such an essential right to a child simply because its natural father has not married its mother. For a State to do so is 'illogical and unjust.' We recognize the lurking problems with respect to proof of paternity. Those problems are not to be lightly brushed aside, but neither can they be made into an impenetrable barrier that works to shield otherwise invidious discrimination.

The judgment is reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion."
Justice Vote: 7 Pro vs. 2 Con
Per Curiam (no individual authorship of majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro
  • Marshall, T. Pro
  • White, B. Pro
  • Blackmun, H. Pro
  • Powell, L. Pro
  • Douglas, W. Pro
  • Burger, W. Pro
  • Stewart, P. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the US Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Court of Civil Appeals for the Fourth Supreme Judicial District of Texas in a 7-2 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.