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CLARK v. JETER

decided: June 6, 1988.

CLARK
v.
JETER



CERTIORARI TO THE SUPERIOR COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA.

O'connor, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Author: O'connor

[ 486 U.S. Page 457]

 JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

Under Pennsylvania law, an illegitimate child must prove paternity before seeking support from his or her father, and a suit to establish paternity ordinarily must be brought within six years of an illegitimate child's birth. By contrast, a legitimate child may seek support from his or her parents at any time. We granted certiorari to consider the constitutionality of this legislative scheme.

I

On September 22, 1983, petitioner Cherlyn Clark filed a support complaint in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas on behalf of her minor daughter, Tiffany, who was born out of wedlock on June 11, 1973. Clark named respondent

[ 486 U.S. Page 458]

     Gene Jeter as Tiffany's father. The court ordered blood tests, which showed a 99.3% probability that Jeter is Tiffany's father.

Jeter moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that it was barred by the 6-year statute of limitations for paternity actions.*fn* In her response, Clark contended that this statute is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the alternative, she argued that the statute was tolled by fraudulent and misleading actions of the welfare department, or by threats and assaults by Jeter.

The trial court upheld the statute of limitations on the authority of Astemborski v. Susmarski, 499 Pa. 99, 451 A. 2d 1012 (1982), vacated, 462 U.S. 1127 (1983), reinstated on remand, 502 Pa. 409, 466 A. 2d 1018 (1983). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court there had considered and rejected constitutional challenges similar to Clark's. The trial court also rejected Clark's argument that the statute should be tolled, specifically finding that any fear that Clark may have had of Jeter had subsided more than six years before she filed her support complaint. Therefore, the trial court entered judgment for Jeter.

Clark appealed to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, again raising her constitutional challenges to the 6-year statute of limitations. Before the court decided her case, the

[ 486 U.S. Page 459]

     Pennsylvania Legislature enacted an 18-year statute of limitations for actions to establish paternity. Act of Oct. 30, 1985, No. 66, § 1, subch. C, 1985 Pa. Laws 270, codified at 23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 4343(b) (1985). Pennsylvania thereby brought its law into compliance with a provision of the federal Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984 that requires all States participating in the federal child support program to have procedures to establish the paternity of any child who is less than 18 years old. 98 Stat. 1307, 42 U. S. C. § 666(a)(5) (1982 ed., Supp. IV). The Superior Court concluded, however, that Pennsylvania's new 18-year statute of limitations did not apply retroactively, and that it would not revive Clark's cause of action in any event. 358 Pa. Super. 550, 518 A. 2d 276 (1986). It affirmed the trial court's conclusions that the 6-year statute of limitations was constitutional, and that Clark's ...


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