2 minute read

Levy v. Louisiana

An Important Reversal: Illegitimate Children As Persons

By vote of 6-3, the Court reversed the two lower court rulings that illegitimate children could not make wrongful death claims under Louisiana law. Justice Douglas, writing a very brief opinion for the majority, first assessed whether illegitimate children were "persons" under the Constitution. Douglas quickly came to the conclusion that they clearly are "persons" within the meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.

The courts had long recognized that states held broad power in making classifications among their citizens. However, Justice Douglas ruled that states may not discriminate against a particular class. Under the Equal Protection Clause, a state's decisions in making classifications must be rational. In this regard, Douglas could not comprehend how an illegitimate child could not have the same rights as others under the clause. Douglas wrote,

The rights asserted here involve the intimate, familial relationship between a child and his own mother. When the child's claim of damage for loss of his mother is in issue, why, in terms of "equal protection," should the tortfeasors go free merely because the child is illegitimate? Why should the illegitimate child be denied rights merely because of his birth out of wedlock? He certainly is subject to all the responsibilities of a citizen, including the payment of taxes and conscription under the Selective Service Act.

How could legitimacy of birth have any bearing on the "wrong allegedly inflicted on the mother"?, Douglas pondered. The Levy children were dependent on her biologically and spiritually as much as any other well-cared for children, and upon her death they suffered no less pain by being illegitimate.

In dissent, joined by Justice Black and Justice Stewart, Justice Harlan expressed strong concerns. He could not understand why a state must consider biological relations when recognizing legal relationships. He wrote, "It is, frankly, preposterous to suggest that the State has made illegitimates into nonpersons" as Douglas assumed in reaching his determination.

Harlan argued the state was free to recognize family relationship only between married couples for certain legal purposes. Harlan wrote,

It is logical to enforce these requirements by declaring that the general class of rights that are dependent upon family relationships shall be accorded only when the formalities as well as the biology of those relationships are present . . . I could not understand why a State which bases the right to recover for wrongful death strictly on family relationships could not demand that those relationships be formalized.

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