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Trimble v. Gordon

Discrimination Based On Legitimacy?

The Illinois Supreme Court, in sustaining the ruling of the circuit court, based its decision on its own ruling in Karas, which itself had been based on the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in Labine v. Vincent. In Labine, the Court allowed to stand a state law preventing acknowledged illegitimate children from inheriting from their fathers if they died intestate. The Court reasoned that striking down the law would represent undue interference with state sovereignty, and that, in any case, a father wishing to bequeath property to his illegitimate offspring could either legitimize them or simply write them into his will. Thus the Court's decision rested in large measure on a reevaluation of its ruling in Labine. After applying renewed scrutiny to Labine, the Court reversed itself and, by a 5-4 margin found Chapter 12 unconstitutional on 26 April 1977.

Justice Powell, writing for the majority, pointed out that although states could legally "classify" the illegitimate to some degree, such classification must, "at a minimum, bear some rational relationship to a legitimate state purpose." The state of Illinois had maintained that its prohibitions against inheritance by illegitimate children, such as that contained in Chapter 12, served to discourage people from having children out of wedlock. The Supreme Court rejected this reasoning, since the punishment inflicted was directed at the children, who were innocent parties to their own illegitimacy. The Court also backed away from its own reasoning in Labine, in that it now believed that "the fact that appellant's father could have provided for her by making a will does not save Chapter 12 from invalidity under the Equal Protection Clause." Finally, the Court decided that Chapter 12 was overly broad, in that it barred illegitimate children from inheriting from their fathers even if, in life, the fathers had acknowledged them (as was the case with Gordon).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980Trimble v. Gordon - A Small But Contentious Estate, Discrimination Based On Legitimacy?, Impact, Heirs And Inheritance Laws