In a major win for parental equality, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that unwed mothers and fathers cannot be treated differently when determining whether their children may claim American citizenship. The decision came in the case of Luis Ramon Morales-Santana, who was born in the Dominican Republic in 1962. Luis’s father was an American citizen; his mother was not. The couple was not married when Luis was born but were later wed. The family moved to America when Luis was 13 and he lived here for several decades. While here, Luis faced the threat of deportation after convictions for robbery, attempted murders, and other crimes because unwed fathers could not pass down citizenship status to their progeny.
Specifically, the law Luis and his lawyers contested as a violation of gender equality statutes dictated that “unwed fathers of children born abroad to transmit citizenship to their kids if the father had lived in the United States before the child was born for a total of 10 years, five of them after age 14.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority, citing that these sort of outdated laws were based on stereotypes and encourage discrimination based on gender. In her opinion, Justice Ginsburg explained that the law saying Luis was not a citizen was predicated on the baseless and outdated idea that “unwed fathers care little about, indeed are strangers to, their children.” Her language for these sorts of laws, many of which remain on the books was harsh.
“We hold that the gender line Congress drew is incompatible with the requirement that the Government accord to all persons ‘the equal protection of the laws,'” Ginsburg wrote.
Parents everywhere should be excited about this ruling, as it represents progress toward rolling back many old laws that treat fathers as non-participants in their family life, forcing mothers into uncomfortable or bizarre legal circumstances. Unfortunately, unwinding old laws can be hard. The ruling did not immediately replace the old writ with new legislation. The Supreme Court advised Congress to select a physical-presence requirement that could be uniformly applied to children born abroad with one U.S. citizen for a parent, wed or not. What law enforcement agencies can’t do, in the meantime, is enforce the old, unconstitutional law.
“Going forward,” Justice Ginsburg wrote, “Congress may address the issue and settle on a uniform prescription that neither favors nor disadvantages any person on the basis of gender.”