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Landmark Cases in Adoption

Erik L. Smith



To understand adoption law and policy, one must understand the important legal cases involving it. Landmark cases are those that significantly change existing law. This paper summarizes 11 landmark cases--six from the U.S. Supreme Court, four from State Supreme Courts, and one from a federal appellate court.


U.S. Supreme Court cases must be followed by all courts nationwide. State Supreme Court cases must be followed by all courts in that state. Federal Appellate cases must be followed by federal courts in that federal circuit. The country has 11 federal circuits, each consisting of several states. The sixth circuit, for example, consists of Kentucky, Tennessee, Michigan, and Ohio. All courts may consider case opinions from outside their own state or federal circuit in reaching a decision, but they are not bound by them. The state and federal appellate cases cited here have been highly persuasive across the country.

  • Armstrong v. Manzo, 380 U.S. 545 (1965) (step-parent adoption)
  • Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645 (1972) (unwed fathers)
  • Quilloin v. Walcott, 434 U.S. 246 (1978) (unwed fathers)
  • Caban v. Mohammed, 441 U.S. 380 (1979) (unwed fathers)
  • Lehr v. Robertson, 463 U.S. 248 (1983) (Putative father registry)
  • Mississippi Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30 (1989) (Native Americans)
  • Matter of Robert O. v. Russell K., 604 N.E.2d 99 (N.Y. 1992) (unwed fathers)
  • In Interest of B.G.C., 496 N.W.2d 239 (Iowa 1992) (unwed fathers)
  • Smith v. Malouf, 722 So.2d 490 (Miss. 1998) (unwed father's ability to sue for damages)
  • Burr v. Stark Cty. Bd. of Commrs., 491 N.E.2d 1101 (Ohio 1986) (wrongful adoption)
  • Doe v. Sundquist, 106 F.3d 702 (6th Cir. 1997) (open records)


U.S. Supreme Court Cases

Armstrong v. Manzo, 380 U.S. 545 (1965) (step-parent adoption)

This case established the rule that where a locatable, presumed parent's rights are terminated without notice, due process requires a new trial.


Texas law required a natural parent's consent in an adoption unless the parent did not support the child sufficiently for two years.

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Copyright © Erik L. Smith.