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PICKETT ET AL. v. BROWN ET AL.

decided: June 6, 1983.

PICKETT ET AL
v.
BROWN ET AL.



APPEAL FROM THE SUPREME COURT OF TENNESSEE.

Brennan, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Author: Brennan

[ 462 U.S. Page 3]

 JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires us to decide the constitutionality of a provision of a Tennessee statute*fn1 that imposes a 2-year limitations period on paternity and child support actions brought on behalf of certain illegitimate children.

I

Under Tennessee law both fathers and mothers are responsible for the support of their minor children. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 34-101 (1977); Rose Funeral Home, Inc. v. Julian, 176 Tenn. 534, 539, 144 S. W. 2d 755, 757 (1940); Brooks v. Brooks, 166 Tenn. 255, 257, 61 S. W. 2d 654 (1933). This duty of support is enforceable throughout the child's minority. See Blackburn v. Blackburn, 526 S. W. 2d 463, 466 (Tenn. 1975); Whitt v. Whitt, 490 S. W. 2d 159, 160 (Tenn. 1973). See also Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 36-820, 36-828 (1977). Tennessee law also makes the father of a child born out of wedlock responsible for "the necessary support and education of the child." § 36-223. See also Brown v. Thomas, 221 Tenn. 319, 323, 426 S. W. 2d 496, 498 (1968). Enforcement of this obligation depends on the establishment of paternity. Tennessee Code Ann. § 36-224(1) (1977)*fn2 provides for the filing

[ 462 U.S. Page 4]

     of a petition which can lead both to the establishment of paternity and to enforcement of the father's duty of support. With a few exceptions, however, the petition must be filed within two years of the child's birth. See § 36-224(2); n. 1, supra.

In May 1978, Frances Annette Pickett filed an action pursuant to § 36-224(1) seeking to establish that Braxton Brown was the father of her son, Jeffrey Lee Pickett, who was born on November 1, 1968. App. 3. Frances Pickett also sought an order from the court requiring Brown to contribute to the support and maintenance of the child. Ibid. Brown denied that he was the father of the child. Id., at 13. It is uncontested that he had never acknowledged the child as his own or contributed to the child's support. Id., at 5-6, 13-14; Brief for Appellants 5. Brown moved to dismiss the suit on the ground that it was barred by the 2-year limitations period established by § 36-224(2). Frances Pickett responded with a motion challenging the constitutionality of the limitations period. App. 5-7, 13.*fn3

The Juvenile Court held that the 2-year limitations period violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth

[ 462 U.S. Page 5]

     Amendment of the Federal Constitution and certain provisions of the Tennessee Constitution. Id., at 14. The court based its conclusion on the fact that the limitations period governing paternity actions imposed a restriction on the support rights of some illegitimate children that was not imposed on the identical rights of legitimate children. Ibid. Without articulating any clear standard of review, the court rejected the State's argument that the 2-year limitations period was justified by the State's interest in preventing the litigation of "stale or spurious" claims. Id., at 15. In the court's view, this argument was undermined by the exception to the limitations period established for illegitimate children who are, or are likely to become, public charges, for "the possibilities of fraud, perjury, or litigation of stale claims [are] no more inherent in a case brought [for] a child who is not receiving public assistance than [in] a case brought for a child who is a public charge." Ibid.*fn4

On appeal,*fn5 the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Juvenile Court and upheld the constitutionality of the 2-year limitations period. 638 S. W. 2d 369 (1982). In addressing Frances Pickett's equal protection and due process challenges to the statute, the court first reviewed our decision in Mills v. Habluetzel, 456 U.S. 91 (1982), and several decisions from other state courts. Based on this review, the court stated that the inquiry with respect to both claims was "essentially the same: whether the state's policy as

[ 462 U.S. Page 6]

     reflected in the statute affords a fair and reasonable opportunity for the mother to decide in a rational way whether or not the child's best interest would be served by her bringing a paternity suit." 638 S. W. 2d, at 376. The court concluded that "[the] Legislature could rationally determine that two years is long enough for most women to have recovered physically and emotionally, and to be able to assess their and their children's situations logically and realistically." Id., at 379.

The court also found that the 2-year statute of limitations was substantially related to the State's valid interest in preventing the litigation of stale or fraudulent claims. Id., at 380. The court justified the longer limitations period for illegitimates who are, or are likely to become, public charges, on the grounds that "[the] state's countervailing interest in doing justice and reducing the number of people on welfare is served by allowing the state a longer time during which to sue." Ibid. The court also suggested that "the Tennessee statute is 'carefully tuned' to avoid hardship in predictable groups of cases, since it contains an exception for actions against men who have acknowledged their children in writing or by supporting them, and it has been held that . . . regular or substantial payments are not required in order to constitute 'support.'" Id., at 379 (footnote omitted). Finally, the court found that the uniqueness of the ...


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