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Mills v. Atlantic City Department of Vital Statistics

Decided: February 4, 1977.

JOYCE ARLENE MILLS, NOW KNOWN AS JOYCE ARLENE LOVALLO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ATLANTIC CITY DEPARTMENT OF VITAL STATISTICS; NEW JERSEY STATE REGISTRAR, DEFENDANT, AND CHRISTINA MARIE BLATTLER, NOW KNOWN AS CHRISTINA MARIE HADLEY, PLAINTIFF, V. ATLANTIC CITY DEPARTMENT OF VITAL STATISTICS; CHARLES A. KARKUT, NEW JERSEY STATE REGISTRAR, DEFENDANT, AND LAURIE ANN CORSON, PLAINTIFF, V. CHARLES A. KARKUT, NEW JERSEY STATE REGISTRAR; AUDUBON DEPARTMENT OF VITAL STATISTICS, DEFENDANT, AND ALICE MARIE COFFEY, NOW KNOWN AS ALICE MARIE LAUFHUTTE, PLAINTIFF, V. CAMDEN DEPARTMENT OF VITAL STATISTICS, CHARLES A. KARKUT, NEW JERSEY STATE REGISTRAR, DEFENDANT



Gruccio, J.s.c.

Gruccio

Plaintiffs challenge the constitutionality of N.J.S.A. 26:8-40.1 which requires the state registrar to place under seal the original birth certificate of any child who is adopted, thereby placing a shield of secrecy over the identity of the child's natural parents. Additionally, plaintiffs challenge N.J.S.A. 9:3-31 which provides that the seal of secrecy may be broken only upon the order of a court for good cause shown. Plaintiffs are all adult adoptees who seek access to their adoption records. They contend that the statutes abridge their right to privacy and to receive important information. Further, it is their position that the statutes deny equal protection of the law, contrary to the mandate of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In order to properly consider this matter it is necessary to look carefully at the adoption procedure and the parties involved. Adoption was unknown at common law. 26 Rutgers L. Rev. 693 (1973), note 8 at 695. Adoption and its legal consequences "are of statutory origin, to serve a sociofamilial policy of prime import." In re Holibaugh , 18 N.J. 229, 233 (1955). In recognition of the fact that children are at times born whose natural parents cannot, or for reasons

of their own, do not wish to care for them, the State in its role as parens patriae has by legislative action created the adoption process to provide these children with a stable home environment in which to grow. Under the statutory scheme of N.J.S.A. 9:3-17 et seq. the legal relationship between the natural parents and the child is terminated and the adoptive parents legally become the child's only parents. The termination of legal relationship between natural parent and child includes, under N.J.S.A. 26:8-40.1 the issuance of a new birth certificate containing the names of the adoptive parents. The original birth record is placed under seal in accordance with that statute.

The purpose of the Adoption Act, N.J.S.A. 9:3-17 et seq. , is to promote policies and procedures socially necessary and desirable for the protection not only of the child placed for adoption but also for the natural and adopting parents. In re P. , 114 N.J. Super. 584, 591 (App. Div. 1971). The purpose of the confidentiality surrounding the birth records arises out of the circumstances that lead to the legal proceedings. The natural parents, having determined that it is in their own and the child's best interests, have placed the child up for adoption. For example, this decision may be precipitated by an illegitimate birth status of the child and the inability of the unwed mother or father to care properly for the child. The assurance of secrecy regarding the identity of the natural parents enables them to place the child for adoption with a reputable agency, with the knowledge that their actions and motivations will not become public knowledge. Assured of this privacy by the State, the natural parents are free to move on and attempt to rebuild their lives after what must be a traumatic and emotionally tormenting episode in their lives.

The adopting parents also have an interest in having the birth records placed under seal. They have taken into their home a child whom they will regard as their own and whom they will love and raise as an integral part of their family unit. It is important to these adopting parents that they

may raise this child without fear of interference from the natural parents and without fear that the birth status of an illegitimate child will be revealed or used as a means of harming the child or themselves. The State has an active interest in protecting and nurturing the growing family relationship it has statutorily created.

The child, who is the third and ultimately most important party to the adoption, has no voice in the proceedings. He or she is not represented as an individual by legal counsel. The child's only protection at the proceedings is the thoroughness of the report of the Division of Youth and Family Services and the perceptiveness of the presiding judge. The State has an obligation to protect the interests of this voiceless party. In re P., supra; In re B. , 63 N.J. Super. 98 (App. Div. 1960). Sealing the birth records serves the interests of the child. It protects the child from any possible stigma of illegitimacy which, though fading, may still exist, and insures that the relationship with his or her new parents can develop into a loving and cohesive family unit uninvaded by a natural parent who later wishes to intrude into the relationship. The statute requiring that the records be sealed clearly serves the interests of all three parties in the adoptive triangle: adoptive parents, natural parents and the child.

Plaintiffs here are no longer children but adults who have grown in their adoptive parents' homes and are already psychologically the children of those parents.*fn1 The family relationship

which the State has created and protected has grown to maturity. Plaintiffs allege that as adults the information regarding their natural parents is part of their identity as human beings. They contend that the State, by refusing automatic access to birth records that nonadopted persons have, is abridging a constitutionally protected right to privacy and to receive important information.

The United States Supreme Court has recognized that a constitutional right to privacy exists. In Griswold v. Connecticut , 381 U.S. 479, 85 S. Ct. 1687, 14 L. Ed. 2d 510 (1965), the court determined that a constitutionally protected zone of privacy is created in the penumbra emanating from the fundamental guarantees of the First, Fourth, Fifth and Ninth Amendments. This guarantee of personal privacy is made applicable to the individual states by the Fourteenth Amendment. Roe v. Wade , 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973); Meerwarth v. Meerwarth , 128 N.J. Super. 285 (Ch. Div. 1974). In Roe v. Wade , the Supreme Court declared that only those personal rights that can be deemed "fundamental" or "implicit in the concept of ordered liberty" are included in the guarantee of personal privacy. 410 U.S. at 152, 93 S. Ct. at 726.

The Supreme Court in San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez , 411 U.S. 1, 93 S. Ct. 1278, 36 L. Ed. 2d 16 (1973), declared that the key to determining whether an interest is "fundamental" is not to be found in comparisons of relative societal significance but rather whether the right asserted is explicitly or implicitly guaranteed by the Constitution. 411 U.S. at 33, 93 S. Ct. 1278. In Rodriguez , the court held that education, perhaps the most important function of state and local government,*fn2 is not a fundamental

personal right protected under the Federal Constitution. The cases which establish the right to privacy in marriage and procreation*fn3 deal with the most intimate areas of marital and personal privacy. Even in these areas the right to privacy is not absolute. In Doe v. Commonwealth's Atty. , 425 U.S. 985, 96 S. Ct. 2192, 48 L. Ed. 2d 810 (1976), the court in a memorandum decision affirmed the decision of a Virginia District Court*fn4 that the right of privacy does not protect private homosexual behavior from punishment under a state sodomy law. It is the opinion of this court that while information regarding the heritage, background and physical and psychological heredity of any person is essential to that person's identity and self image, nevertheless it is not so intimately personal as to fall within the zones of privacy implicitly protected in the penumbra of the Bill of Rights.*fn5

Even when constitutionally protected, the right to privacy is not absolute. Its parameters are continually being defined. Meerwarth v. Meerwarth, supra. In Roe v. Wade, supra , the Supreme Court reiterated that the right to privacy may be regulated by the state if such regulation is justified by compelling state interest. In State v. Saunders , 130 N.J. Super. 234 (Law Div. 1974), the court upheld a statute which made fornication unlawful. The court cited Justice Goldberg's concurring opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut, ...


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