Pickett v. Brown

LOCATION: Dr. Simopoulos’ Clinic

DOCKET NO.: 82-5576
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: Tennessee Supreme Court

CITATION: 462 US 1 (1983)
ARGUED: Apr 27, 1983
DECIDED: Jun 06, 1983

Harold W. Horne - on behalf of the Appellants
Susan Short - on behalf of the Appellees

Facts of the case


Media for Pickett v. Brown

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 27, 1983 in Pickett v. Brown

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments first this morning in Pickett against Brown.

Mr. Horne, you may proceed.

Harold W. Horne:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court.

The issue in this case is whether Tennessee's two-year statute of limitations governing paternity and child support actions for illegitimate children violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

In Gomez v. Perez, this Court held that once a state posits a judicially enforceable right of children to support from their natural fathers, that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the state from denying the same right to illegitimate children.

Last year this Court, in the case of Mills v. Habluetzel considered Texas's response to Gomez and found that Texas's one year statute of limitations was unconstitutional.

In Mills the Court considered two criteria, the first being that any period for obtaining support must be sufficiently long in duration to present a reasonable opportunity for those with an interest in the child to assert the child's right to paternal support and second, that any period of limitation on that opportunity must be substantially related to the state's interest in avoiding the litigation of stale and fraudulent claims.

This Court found that in the Mills case, the Mills statute, the one year statute of limitations failed on both criteria.

And the same reasoning which applied in Texas's case applies in Tennessee's, or to Tennessee's two-year statute of limitations.

But in addition, in Tennessee, we have three additional factors which further the conclusion that Tennessee's two-year period of limitations is nothing less than invidious discrimination toward illegitimate children.

The first is that in Tennessee's two-year statute of limitations the statute applies only to illegitimate children who are not receiving support from the state or who are not, in terms of the statute, a public charge.

Thus, a two-year, nonwelfare, illegitimate child whose mother fails to file an action before the child reaches his second birthday will find his right to legitimation and to receive paternal support forever terminated, unless the child sometime in the future goes on welfare, receives AFDC or any other form of state assistance, and becomes a public charge, at which time the statute which purportedly had run, then terminates and the child can then, on behalf of any person, have an action filed, or any person can file the action on behalf of the child to seek the paternal support.

Thus, the Tennessee legislature itself has considered that claims involving paternity and paternal support do not, in and of themselves, become stale prior to 18 years, or the reign of 18 years.

The second item, and it comes out of a number of cases this Court has previously decided, this Court has held that involving the death of a father, that the claim of a state or the right of a state to legislate discriminatory treatment can be rationally related or substantially related to the state's interest in the orderly disposition of estates.

However, in Tennessee, were the defendant Braxton Brown to die today, young Pickett could go into the Tennessee court and sue his father's estate and if he could meet the heightened standard of proof, being now more than preponderance of the evidence and less than beyond a reasonable doubt, that his father had, in fact, the defendant or the decedent was his father, he could proceed... could get a judgment and could be allowed to receive part of his father's estate.

Now if the issue in today's case were the right of young Pickett to proceed against a decedent's estate, I would have to agree with the Court that perhaps the claim could be stale and certainly would possess the potential for being fraudulent, yet again, the Tennessee legislature, or the Tennessee courts have decided that the mere death of the father, of the purported father, does not cause a claim to be stale or so possessed with the problems of being fraudulent as to terminate that cause or right of action.

Third additional consideration is that in Tennessee the statute itself says that the purpose is to provide for the support, education and welfare of illegitimate children.

On the front end of Tennessee's statute, they again say that the fathers are responsible for the welfare and support of their illegitimate children.

Now obviously, one of the purposes of this statute is to prevent the likelihood that the illegitimate child will be placed upon the... or placed in need of support from the taxpayers of the state of Tennessee.

Harry A. Blackmun:

Mr. Horne, why did the mother wait so long in this case to bring her suit?

Harold W. Horne:

You won't find it in the record, Your Honor, because I didn't come into this case until the statute of limitations issue has already been raised and we went straight from that issue to the Supreme Court, but in this case, Mrs. Pickett, when she became pregnant was so embarrassed, she told me, that she immediately left the town that she was living in, Memphis, moved down into Mississippi with her child to give birth in a community where nobody knew her and where she could hide her shame.

She told me that she filed this lawsuit when her child reached about nine years of age, he started saying well, who's my father and how come I don't have his name and why isn't his name on my birth certificate and it was at the request of her son that he be given an opportunity to have his father's name that she filed this lawsuit.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Is it your position that no statute of limitations can be applied to an illegitimate child during the minority for establishment of paternity?

Harold W. Horne:

Well, certainly in Tennessee I would agree that that is my position because of the other factors, but I would argue, likewise, that in any state irrespective of what factors were considered, that there is no logical reason for denying an illegitimate child the right to seek paternal support where the legitimate child is provided that right.

And I would go further and say, if a state were to say, well, legitimate children don't have the right to support from their fathers, I would find constitutional flaw with that argument as well.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, Mr. Horne, what about a state which doesn't toll any statute during minority?

That is, the statute runs against minors, not just on legitimation claims, but on contract claims, tort claims and the like.

Harold W. Horne:

Well, I haven't given as much consideration to that possibility as I have in this case, but my initial reaction, Your Honor, is to say that any statute of limitations which affects a child's right to know his father, to have his father's name, the name on the birth certificate, and the right to receive support from both parents would be an unconstitutional deprivation of both equal protection... equal rights, rather and due process.

The reason, the only--

William H. Rehnquist:

It wouldn't be a equal protection violation, would it, if all causes of action of minors are treated the same?