After Goodridge: the Potential of Equal Protection Challenges Under the Massachusetts Constitution Involving Non-Economic, Personal Interests

by Steven E. Gurdin and Kelly A. Schwartz

Legal Analysis

Massachusetts courts apply an enhanced version of rational basis review where regulations infringe on non-economic, personal interests.[1] In light of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, 440 Mass. 309 (2003), this analysis has the potential to support constitutional challenges on equal protection grounds to two existing Massachusetts statutes related to families. They are: (1) M.G.L. c. 119, § 39D, the grandparent visitation statute; and (2) M.G.L. c. 209C, § 10, custody of children born out of wedlock.

Equal Protection and Enhanced Rational Basis Review in Massachusetts

Equal protection requires “that all persons in the same category and in the same circumstances be treated alike.”  Opinion of the Justices, 332 Mass. 769, 779-80 (1955). The standard of review in Massachusetts for equal protection claims that do not involve a fundamental right or suspect class is rational basis review.  See Tobin’s Case, 424 Mass. 250, 252-53 (1997).

The Massachusetts Constitution requires that a regulation be “rationally related to the furtherance of a legitimate State interest.” Mass. Fed’n of Teachers, AFT, AFL-CIO v. Bd. of Educ., 436 Mass. 763, 777 (2002) (quoting Chebacco Liquor Mart, Inc. v. Alcoholic Beverages Control Comm’n, 429 Mass. 721, 722 (1999)).  However, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) has determined that in cases involving non-economic regulations, Massachusetts’s Constitution “may guard more jealously against the exercise of the State’s police power” than the Federal Constitution.[2] That is, the SJC has applied an enhanced version of rational basis review where classifications affect personal, non-economic interests that are not considered fundamental.  See Friedman, supra note 2.

The most prominent example of this analysis is Goodridge.[3]  There, same-sex couples alleged that the denial of their access to marriage licenses and the status of civil marriage violated the Massachusetts Constitution. The Court held that this exclusion violated equal protection. The Court concluded that “[t]he marriage ban works a deep and scarring hardship on a very real segment of the community for no rational reason,” noting that “[t]he absence of any reasonable relationship between” the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage and the protection of the general welfare.  Goodridge, 440 Mass. at 341 (emphasis added).

As exemplified by Goodridge, enhanced rational basis review under the Massachusetts Constitution requires that there be an actual, rather than merely a conceivable, connection between the government’s legitimate regulatory interest and the imposed regulation, and that the connection be reasonable.  See Friedman, supra note 2 at 418.  Moreover, Massachusetts’s rational basis review for equal protection claims, “requires that an impartial lawmaker could logically believe that the classification would serve a legitimate public purpose that transcends the harm to the members of the disadvantaged class.”  Goodridge, 440 Mass. at 330 (emphasis added) (internal quotations omitted) (quoting English v. New England Med. Ctr., Inc., 405 Mass. 423, 429 (1989)).

Grandparent Visitation  

Under this enhanced rational basis review, Massachusetts’s grandparent visitation statute, as-applied, arguably violates equal protection under the Massachusetts Constitution.

M.G.L. c. 119, § 39D states in relevant part:

If the parents of an unmarried minor child are divorced, married but living apart, under a temporary order or judgment of separate support, or if either or both parents are deceased, or if said unmarried minor child was born out of wedlock whose paternity has been adjudicated by a court of competent jurisdiction or whose father has signed an acknowledgement of paternity, and the parents do not reside together, the grandparents of such minor child may be granted reasonable visitation rights . . . upon a written finding that such visitation rights would be in the best interest of the said minor child . . . .

(Emphasis added.)

The statute, as interpreted by Blixt v. Blixt, 437 Mass. 649 (2002), essentially imposes two conditions for grandparents to seek visitation: that the parents are separated or divorced; and that the grandparents have either a significant preexisting relationship with the grandchildren, or that the grandchildren will suffer significant harm absent visitation with the grandparents. Under Blixt, the second condition amounts to a heightened pleading requirement that grandparents must meet in order to seek visitation.

As-applied, the law discriminates against grandparents of grandchildren whose parents are not divorced or separated with respect to their ability to seek visitation when it is in the grandchildren’s best interest.  The statute creates two classes of grandparents: (1) those who can seek visitation because the parents are divorced or separated; and (2) those who cannot because the parents are not divorced or separated.  The classes are similarly situated because both sets of grandparents would presumably seek visitation regardless of the parents’ marital or living status on the grounds that it would be in the best interests of their grandchildren.

Applying enhanced rational basis review, the statutorily-created classifications of grandparents do not rationally serve a legitimate public purpose that transcends the harm in denying the opportunity for grandparents of parents who are not separated or divorced from seeking visitation when it is in the grandchildren’s best interest.  Three potential rationales for the discrimination are: preserving judicial resources; preventing infringement of parental rights; and safeguarding the welfare of children and giving deference to Blixt’s rationale “that the burden of the traumatic loss of a grandparent’s significant presence may fall most heavily on the child whose unmarried parents live apart” in using parental status to distinguish between classes of grandparents.  437 Mass. at 664; see Goodridge, 440 Mass. at 331.  Each of these rationales likely fails enhanced rational basis scrutiny.

First, the requirements for visitation would continue to preserve judicial resources even if grandparents of parents who are not separated or divorced petitioned for visitation because the heightened pleading requirements would serve as a gatekeeping mechanism. Second, the heightened pleading requirements would protect the rights of parents to make child-rearing decisions because only grandparents who can demonstrate that there was a significant preexisting relationship with the grandchildren, or that the grandchildren will be significantly harmed, could seek visitation.[4]  Finally, denying certain grandparents the right to seek visitation when it is in the grandchildren’s best interests would not safeguard children’s interests, especially when Blixt acknowledges that there may be children whose parents are not divorced or separated who would be harmed without visitation with their grandparents.  See 437 Mass. at 664. It is precisely these factual circumstances that would serve as the basis for an as-applied challenge to the statute, where a court can reconsider the law in the context of an actual dispute.  See Wash. State Grange v. Wash. State Republican Party, 552 U.S. 442, 449-50, 457-58 (2008).

Custody of Children Born Out of Wedlock

Similarly, Massachusetts’s statute pertaining to custody of children born out of wedlock arguably violates equal protection under the Massachusetts Constitution pursuant to enhanced rational basis review analysis.

M.G.L. c. 209C, § 10(a)-(b) provides in relevant part:

(a) Upon or after an adjudication or voluntary acknowledgment of paternity, the court may award custody to the mother or the father or to them jointly . . . as may be appropriate in the best interests of the child . . . . In awarding the parents joint custody, the court shall do so only if the parents have entered into an agreement pursuant to section eleven or the court finds that the parents have successfully exercised joint responsibility for the child prior to the commencement of proceedings pursuant to this chapter and have the ability to communicate and plan with each other concerning the child’s best interests.

(b) Prior to or in the absence of an adjudication or voluntary acknowledgment of paternity, the mother shall have custody of a child born out of wedlock.  In the absence of an order or judgment of a probate and family court relative to custody, the mother shall continue to have custody of a child after an adjudication of paternity or voluntary acknowledgment of parentage.

(Emphasis added.)

As-applied, the law denies unwed fathers not cohabitating with the mother,[5] the right to equal protection by discriminating against these fathers as compared to divorcing fathers when joint legal custody is in the child’s best interest.[6]  Pursuant to M.G.L. c. 208, § 31, divorcing fathers are presumed to have joint legal custody of a child until otherwise ordered and need only prove that it is in the child’s best interest for it to be awarded.  Whereas, pursuant to M.G.L. c. 209C, § 10(a)-(b), unwed fathers not cohabitating with the mother are not presumed to have joint legal custody and must meet additional and burdensome requirements to have it awarded.[7]  The fathers are similarly situated because both groups are men whose parentage has either been assumed due to their marital status or established by adjudication or acknowledgment, and whose children would presumably benefit from their involvement in their life.[8]

To be awarded joint legal custody absent an agreement with the mother, in addition to satisfying the best interest standard, an unwed father not cohabitating with the mother is required to prove that he and the mother “have successfully exercised joint responsibility for the child prior to the commencement of proceedings;” and he and the mother have “the ability to communicate and plan with each other concerning the child’s best interests.”  M.G.L. c. 209C, § 10(a).  A divorcing father, however, enjoys “temporary shared legal custody of any minor child of the marriage” and he need only ultimately prove that an award of joint custody is in the child’s best interest.  M.G.L. c. 208, § 31.

Under an enhanced rational basis review analysis, the different treatment of unwed fathers not cohabitating with the mother and divorcing fathers pursuant to M.G.L. c. 209C, § 10(a)-(b) likely does not rationally serve a legitimate public purpose that transcends the harm in requiring that unwed fathers meet more onerous requirements.[9] Potential public purposes that may be advanced to justify the discrimination are: preserving judicial resources; and safeguarding the wellbeing of children.[10]

First, judicial resources would not be further expended if both classes of fathers were afforded the same presumption and held to the same standard to be awarded joint legal custody.  In fact, judicial resources may be conserved if all fathers were afforded the presumption and only the child’s best interest governed.  Second, the wellbeing of children is not enhanced by requiring that unwed fathers not cohabitating with the mother meet more burdensome requirements or be denied a presumption of joint legal custody because an analysis of the child’s best interest should afford all children the same protection, especially where there are divorcing fathers who do not have a history of successfully exercising joint responsibility for the child and cannot communicate or cooperate with the mother. If children of unwed fathers not cohabitating with the mother are afforded greater protections than children of divorcing fathers, this likely violates “the Commonwealth’s strong public policy to abolish legal distinctions between marital and nonmarital children in providing for the support and care of minors.” Goodridge, 440 Mass. at 325 (citations omitted); see M.G.L. c. 209C, § 1 (“Children born to parents who are not married to each other shall be entitled to the same rights and protections of the law as all other children.”).  Further, these additional and burdensome requirements may discourage fathers whose children would benefit from their participation in important decisions from pursuing these rights.  See Cuadra, supra note 6 at 634-35.

Conclusion

Looking to Goodridge as a roadmap for an enhanced rational basis review analysis, some Massachusetts statutes impacting personal interests, like a grandparent’s ability to pursue visitation or an unwed father’s ability to participate in important child rearing decisions, may well be vulnerable to challenges on equal protection grounds. This kind of judicial review recognizes that there may be instances in which legislative classifications draw lines that infringe on personal interests without adequate justification.  This review does not mean every statute that differentiates among significant personal interests will fail—just that the Commonwealth must be able to articulate a reason for the discrimination that has a basis in fact. On the right facts, an enhanced rational basis review analysis has the potential to push the legal landscape to better serve families by pushing the Commonwealth either to justify the discrimination or abandon distinctions that no longer make sense.

Steven E. Gurdin is a partner at Fitch Law Partners LLP, concentrating his practice in and frequently presenting on family law and probate litigation matters.  He represents clients in all aspects of family law including, divorce proceedings, paternity actions, child removal actions, modification and contempt actions, grandparent visitation cases, and alimony and child support issues.

Kelly A. Schwartz is an associate at Fitch Law Partners LLP.  Her practice is in family law, which includes matters involving divorce, child custody, alimony, child support, and asset division.

[1] Special thanks to Lawrence Friedman, Professor of Law at New England Law, for his input and support.

[2] See Blue Hills Cemetery, Inc. v. Bd. of Reg. in Embalming & Funeral Directing, 379 Mass. 368, 373 n.8 (1979); Coffee-Rich, Inc. v. Comm’r of Pub. Health, 348 Mass. 414, 421-22 (1965); Lawrence Friedman, Ordinary and Enhanced Rational Basis Review in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court: A Preliminary Investigation, 69 Albany L. Rev. 415 (2006) (discussing history of Massachusetts cases in which courts applied less deferential rational basis review under the Massachusetts Constitution); see also Goodridge, 440 Mass. at 328 (“The Massachusetts Constitution protects matters of personal liberty against government incursion as zealously, and often more so, than does the Federal Constitution, even where both Constitutions employ essentially the same language.”), n.18 (“We have recognized that our Constitution may more extensively protect individual rights than the Federal Constitution in widely different contexts.”).

[3] See Friedman, supra note 2 at 419-22, 440.

[4] Of note, Massachusetts House Bill No. 1534, which was submitted in the current session on January 18, 2019, provides that any grandparent may file an original action for visitation rights if it is in the child’s best interest and if, among other conditions, “the child is living with biological parents, who are still married to each other, whether or not there is a broken relationship between either or both parents of the minor and the grandparent and either or both parents have used their prenatal authority to prohibit a relationship between the child and the grandparent.”

[5] See Dep’t of Revenue v. C.M.J., 432 Mass. 69, 77 (2000) (determining that under M.G.L. c. 209C, § 10(b), an unwed father cohabitating with the mother and providing support to his children was presumed a custodial parent even absent a court order regarding custody); Trial Court Judgment of Dismissal and Memorandum of Decision (Gibson, J. Nov. 5, 2013); see also Com. v. Gonzalez, 462 Mass. 459, 464 & n.12 (2012); 14B Mass. Prac., Summary of Basic Law, § 8:264 (5th ed. 2019) (“[I]f the father is living with the mother and the child or children born out of wedlock, the mother’s custody is not sole custody, but joint custody with the father.”) & nn.4-5.

[6] See Bernardo Cuadra, Family Law–Maternal and Joint Custody Presumptions for Unmarried Parents:  Constitutional and Policy Considerations in Massachusetts and Beyond, 32 W. New Eng. L. Rev. 599, 620-22 (2010) (footnote notation omitted) (discussing the difference in Massachusetts between divorcing parents and unmarried parents with regard to the presumption of joint legal custody).

[7] Department of Revenue v. C.M.J. did not, however, address whether unwed fathers cohabitating with the mother must also meet the additional requirements outlined in M.G.L. 209C, § 10(a) to be awarded joint legal custody.

[8] See Cuadra, supra note 6 at 633-34 (“Joint legal custody has been shown in the context of divorce to increase a father’s involvement with his child, including parenting time and overnights.  Subsequent research suggests the same outcome for unwed fathers.”).

[9] See Goodridge, 440 Mass. at 330; see also Cuadra, supra note 6 at 639 (suggesting that Massachusetts’s different treatment of divorcing and unwed fathers should be examined pursuant to a rational basis review where the statute would “be scrutinized with something greater than sweeping deference.”) & n.251 (citing and quoting Goodridge).

[10] See Goodridge, 440 Mass. at 331; Blixt, 437 Mass. at 663; Trial Court Judgment, supra note 5.