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Clark v. Jeter


Clark v. Jeter continued a consistent trend in twentieth century family law to extend constitutionally protected rights to children. Through the end of the nineteenth century, the Supreme Court had traditionally avoided adjudicating family conflicts, preferring to leave such matters to the individual states. But rapid social changes in the twentieth century created conflicts that necessitated federal judicial involvement. Divorce rates, women entering the workforce, abortion and contraception, and nontraditional family structures created controversies that were brought to the nation's courts. As Kermit L. Hall pointed out in The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court, "the family became a battleground for contests spawned by social change [and] the federal government, and especially the Supreme Court, became one of the primary arenas of that struggle."

The basis of the Court's intervention in family law was the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees due process of law and equal protection to all persons within its jurisdiction. Passed in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment had been adopted to rectify discriminatory race laws after the Civil War and was central to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The heightened attention to individual rights resulting from the Civil Rights movement, wrote Hall, "sparked new concerns about national family policies and a new sense of rights consciousness among family members." The Supreme Court began to give new rights to children born out of wedlock, departing from the tradition of Anglo-Saxon law that had privileged marriage by denying family rights to illegitimate children. Starting with Levy v. Louisiana (1968), in which the Court ruled that illegitimate children had the same right as legitimate children to sue for damages after their mother's death, the Court began to develop a new set of standards pertaining to cases of illegitimacy. In the years since, the Court has consistently struck down obstacles to illegitimate children seeking parental support, but sought to balance children's rights with the rights of putative fathers to defend themselves against false paternity claims.

With new genetic testing that can determine paternity to a greater than 99 percent certainty, the Court found that statutes of limitation on paternity claims, instituted to protect the alleged father's right to establish a defense against a fraudulent claim, are no longer necessary. Clark v. Jeter continues the trend to extend equal protection guarantees to children born out of wedlock.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Clark v. Jeter - Significance, New Directions In Family Law, Important Precedents, Impact, Pro And Con: Dna Testing