Supreme Court Bars Discrimination That Favors Mothers Over Fathers in Citizenship Case

Supreme Court Bars Discrimination That Favors Mothers Over Fathers in Citizenship Case

The Supreme Court steps in for the rights of unwed fathers

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that unwed mothers and fathers may not be treated differently when it comes to whether their children can claim American citizenship, The New York Times reports. 

“The gender line Congress drew is incompatible with the requirement that the government accord to all persons ‘the equal protections of the laws,'” justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote in the majority decision.

The case centers around Luis Ramon Morales-Santana, who was born in the Dominican Republic in 1962. His dad was an American citizen, but his mother wasn’t. The couple was unwed but later married.

Morales-Santana’s family moved to the U.S. when he was just 13, and he lived in the U.S. for decades. Over time he was convicted of robbery, attempted murder and a spate of other crimes and federal authorities attempted to deport him.

He fought back, claiming American citizenship. However, the law in effect when he was born only allowed unwed fathers of children born abroad to transmit citizenship to their kids only if their fathers had lived in the U.S. for a total of 10 years. And five of those years had to be after age 14, The Times reports. Morales-Santana’s father fell just short of that requirement.

This very same law made it easier for unwed mothers to transmit citizenship to their kids, since it only required them to live in the U.S. for a year before their child was born. Over time, the law has been slightly amended, but it still favors mothers over fathers.

But the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, ruled for Morales-Santana, noting that the difference in the ways mothers and fathers were treated, were an unconstitutional form of sex discrimination. The appeals court granted him citizenship.

Justice Ginsburg concurred that the law was based on stereotypes that didn’t support equal protection principles. The law was predicated on the faulty assumption that “unwed fathers care little about, indeed are strangers to, their children.”

“Lump characterization of that kind, however, no longer passes equal protection inspection,” she wrote.

For Ginsburg, this was a vital decision because she has spent some 20 years arguing as an attorney for equal treatment for men and women seeking citizenship for their kids, NPR reports. 

This is the fourth time in two decades that the Court has struggled with different versions of this decision, but this time around, the court successfully ruled 6-2 to require equal treatment of unwed mothers, fathers and their children. All of the court’s liberals ruled in favor of this, as did Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy.

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But the decision left Ginsburg with what she called a “vexing problem” regarding what the next steps should be.

In a typical case, the ruling would extend the favorable treatment of one sex — in this case women — to men. But Ginsburg noted that favorable treatment for mothers was the exception to the rule, for the most part, anyway.

The court, she said, was not free to make the general exception to this rule, however. It’s up to Congress to set the same rule for everyone.

So, for the time being, Ginsburg said, the law will have to be equalized by ensuring unwed mothers abide by the same citizenship rules that have in the past have applied to unwed fathers.

It probably “broke [Ginsburg’s] heart” to have to do it this way, said University of Chicago law professor Mary Anne Case. “This is an omelet that they made by breaking some eggs.”

But this is the first time the court has applied gender equality as a concept to U.S. citizenship laws. It’s wonderful to see some equality for men. Because equality is a battle that goes both ways.

So I have a simple plan: In a world full of Donald Trumps, I’ll be a Ruth Bader Ginsburg. If I can manage to accomplish one-quarter of the things she’s done in her lifetime, I’ll be doing good.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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Megan was born and raised in Ventura, California. She has since lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Pacific Northwest, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Mexico, and Costa Rica. While she has always been a liberal, her travels have informed her politics. She has worked for more than 25 years as a professional journalist writing about crime, the police, local politics, feature stories, environmental issues and a variety of other topics. She now writes for Reverb Press.

Megan supports Black Lives Matter and fights against racism, sexism, the corporatocracy, climate change deniers and others who continue to destroy the planet.