Family Law Keyed to Weisberg

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Palmore v. Sidoti

Citation. Palmore v. Sidoti, 466 U.S. 429, 104 S. Ct. 1879, 80 L. Ed. 2d 421, 1984 U.S. LEXIS 69, 52 U.S.L.W. 4497 (U.S. Apr. 25, 1984)

Brief Fact Summary. Respondent petitioned the court for a modification of a previous child custody judgment based on changed conditions after the Caucasian mother married an African-American man. The trial court awarded custody to the respondent.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. The Fourteenth Amendment does not permit the consideration of potential effects do to racial prejudice against mixed-race families in child custody determinations.

Facts. Petitioner Linda Palmore and respondent Anthony Sidoti, both Caucasians, were divorced in 1980 in Florida, with the mother being awarded custody of their daughter. In 1981 the father filed a petition to modify the prior judgment because of changed conditions, based on the child’s mother cohabitating with a Negro, Clarence Palmore, Jr., whom she married two months earlier. The father also made several allegations that the mother had not properly cared for the child. The court noted no issue as to either party’s devotion to the child, adequacy of housing facilities, or respectability of the new spouse of either parent. The court counselor made an earlier report in another case involving the social consequences of an interracial marriage. The court found likewise in this case the wife had chosen for herself and for her child a life-style unacceptable to her father and to society. The court found the best interests of the child would be served by awarding custody to the fath
er, because of the environmental pressures that would be placed on the child that are not of the child’s own choice.

Issue. Did the court err by divesting a natural mother of the custody of her infant child because of her remarriage to a person of a different race?

Held. The effects of racial prejudice cannot justify a racial classification removing an infant child from the custody of its natural mother who was found to be an appropriate person to have such custody.
The court based its decision solely on the issue of race, without a focus on the parental qualifications of the natural mother or her present husband. This raises important federal concerns arising from the Constitution’s commitment to eradicating discrimination based on race. The court stated the child’s welfare was the controlling factor, but made no effort to place its holding on any ground other than race.

A core purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to do away with all governmentally-imposed discrimination based on race. To pass constitutional muster, racial classifications must be justified by a compelling governmental interest. The goal of granting custody based on the best interests of the child is indisputably a substantial governmental interest under the Equal Protection Clause.

It would ignore reality to suggest that racial prejudices do not exist, but the possible injury they might inflict are not permissible considerations for removal of an infant child from the custody of its natural mother. The law cannot give private biases effect, either directly or indirectly.

Discussion. The Court acknowledged the potential social stigmatization of growing up in a mixed-race family, but found that such considerations are not permissible considerations under Fourth Amendment law.