Family law cases in the U.S. typically involve marriage, child custody, and adoption, but they can also involve other more obscure areas, such as the use of contraceptives. The United States Supreme Court rarely hears a case in family law because of the fact-specific nature of family law cases. It is difficult for such a high court to set precedents for cases with so many variables. However, on occasion, the U.S. Supreme Court will agree to hear a family law case, and when they do, it is usually a pivotal point for U.S. law. Here are four landmark cases in family law in the United States.
1. Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) – Contraception and Marital Privacy
This case established the right to contraceptives for married couples and the right to marital privacy. The events leading up to this pivotal Supreme Court case involved the conviction of a Planned Parenthood director and licensed physician for giving a married couple contraceptives. At the time, a Connecticut law made it a crime for any person to use any drug or article to prevent conception. The director and the physician appealed their conviction. When the case finally made it up to the Supreme Court, the Court held that the Connecticut law violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.
The Court reasoned that although the Constitution does not specifically state a right to privacy, it implies it. The Court explained that the Connecticut law violated the right of marital privacy which is within the penumbra of the Bill of Rights. The use of contraceptives falls under the umbrella of marital privacy. Therefore, the law was in violation of the Constitution.
2. Loving v. Virginia (1967) – Interracial Marriage
Virginia newlyweds Mildred and Richard Loving had to make the choice between spending one year in jail or facing 25 years in exile from the state of Virginia. The couple was married legally in Washington, D.C., but their marriage was a crime against a Virginia state law that forbade miscegenation (i.e. interracial marriage). Mildred was black and Native American and Richard was white. The United State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newlyweds, consequently voiding all other state laws against interracial marriage.
3. Roe v. Wade (1973) – Abortion
A woman brought a class action lawsuit against a Texan district attorney, Henry Wade, after being denied an abortion. Once again, under the right of privacy granted by the Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court held that a woman was legally allowed to get an abortion without interference from the state. However, the Court put a limitation on this right by allowing the states to regulate the abortion after the first trimester, and the right to restrict abortions in some cases after viability (i.e. about 23 weeks into the pregnancy).
4. Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) – Same Sex Marriage
This recent case arose from multiple state laws banning same-sex marriage. Groups of same-sex couples sued state agencies in Kentucky, Michigan, Tennessee, and Ohio to challenge the state bans on gay marriage. In their arguments, the same-sex couples asserted the 14th Amendment, and the Equal Protection Clause, along with some claims under the Civil Rights Act. As a result, the U.S. Supreme Court held in favor of the same-sex couples. It ruled that same-sex couples are guaranteed the fundamental right to marry under the U.S. Constitution.
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