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Levy v. Louisiana

Significance

This decision recognized the rights of illegitimate children as similar to the rights of others. The Court recognized illegitimate children as "persons" under Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision held that a state can not create a common legal right for children for certain issues and exclude illegitimate children from the benefit of such a right. The ruling together with later court decisions began defining children's rights more thoroughly.

The Fourteenth Amendment, passed in the wake of the Civil War, stated in part that no state could "deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." This portion of the amendment became known as the Equal Protection Clause.

In regard to expected social behavior in the United States, illegitimacy has long been considered a "sin" by many. Social perceptions of adultery and illegitimacy were the subject of Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter, which depicts Hester Prynne, a woman who was punished when it was found that she was guilty of adultery and refused to name the father of her illegitimate child. Many moral issues and stigmas of seventeenth century Puritan society, including unwed motherhood and illegitimate children, were still apparent in American society as the twentieth century drew to a close. Prynne was ostracized by her community, but still able to contribute to it.

In American law, children born out of wedlock were often distinguished from those born in marriage. States assigned a special, more limited legal status to illegitimate children. Typically, the various laws were often inconsistent leading to confusion over the actual legal status of illegitimate children in specific situations. For instance, according to Louisiana law, illegitimate children acknowledged by their father were considered natural children. Children with unknown fathers were identified by the title of bastard.

As with many states, Louisiana followed a distinctive course in its restrictions related to common law marriages and illegitimacy. For example, a common-law wife was able to sue under the Louisiana wrongful death statute in the event of the death of her husband. Also, an illegitimate child born to a married woman was normally presumed legitimate. Louisiana made no distinction of legitimacy where incest was a factor. A mother economically dependent on an illegitimate child would be eligible for monetary awards under the Louisiana Workmen's Compensation Act if the child was killed in a work-related accident.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Levy v. Louisiana - Significance, The Levy Family, An Important Reversal: Illegitimate Children As Persons, An Important Reversal