Stanley v. Illinois Case Brief

Why is the case important?

Appellant had an ongoing relationship with a woman with whom he sired and raised three children. Upon the death of the mother the children were deemed wards of the State under an Illinois law that did not place children in the custody of unwed fathers.

Facts of the case

Joan Stanley had three children with Peter Stanley. The Stanleys never married, but lived together off and on for 18 years. When Joan died, the State of Illinois took the children. Under Illinois law, unwed fathers were presumed unfit parents regardless of their actual fitness and their children became wards of the state. Peter appealed the decision, arguing that the Illinois law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because unwed mothers were not deprived of their children without a showing that they were actually unfit parents. The Illinois Supreme Court rejected Stanley’s Equal Protection claim, holding that his actual fitness as a parent was irrelevant because he and the children’s mother were unmarried.


Does the Illinois statute violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by distinguishing against and burdening unwed fathers?


As a matter of due process of law, appellant was entitled to a hearing on his fitness as a parent before his children were taken from him. By denying him a hearing when all other parents whose custody of their children is challenged are permitted one, the State denied appellant the equal protection of laws under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Under Illinois law, children of all parents can be taken from them in a neglect proceeding, but only after notice, hearing, and proof of unfitness. In contrast, an unwed father is uniquely subject to the more simplistic dependency proceeding.


The State’s interest in caring for plaintiff’s children was de minimis if plaintiff was shown to be a fit father. Plaintiff was denied equal protection of the law because all parents were constitutionally entitled to a hearing on their fitness before their children were removed from their custody. Thus, plaintiff, as an unwed father, was also entitled to a hearing.

  • Case Brief: 1972
  • Petitioner: Peter Stanley, Sr.
  • Respondent: Illinois
  • Decided by: Burger Court

Citation: 405 US 645 (1972)
Argued: Oct 19, 1971
Decided: Apr 3, 1972
Granted Jan 25, 1971