Federal Judge Gives California’s Attorney General 60 Days to Explain Family Court Outdated ‘Slut-Shaming’ Law

Federal lawsuit challenges constitutionality of California’s outdated “Slut- Shaming” law in family court.

By Susan Bassi and Fred Johnson

Valentine’s Day came early for unwed parents after U.S. District Judge Andrew P. Gordon issued an order giving California’s Attorney General 60 days to clarify the constitutionality of a law that treats married and unmarried parents differently within the state’s family court system.

Family Code section 7643, branded by mothers as the state’s “slut-shaming law,” mandates strict confidentiality for court files and dockets involving unmarried parents. In stark contrast, court files related to married parents dealing with similar legal matters regarding their children during divorce proceedings are entirely public.

The origins of this law date back to a period when the stigma surrounding illegitimate births cast shame upon unwed mothers and their children. The law was crafted to protect the reputations of powerful men married to women other than the mothers of their children. Court secrecy kept matters out of the public eye and out of the press.

The law was slightly modified in 2022 but continues to impact hundreds of thousands of parents and their children who entered the state’s family court system prior to 2023.

Unintended consequences arising from the secrecy surrounding parentage cases result in concealment of conflicts of interest related to judges, attorneys, therapists, police officers, and expert witnesses, creating an appearance of gross unfairness arising from a law that many argue is out of date.

Furthermore, accessing files in parentage cases poses an even greater challenge compared to divorce cases. In parentage cases, parents and their attorneys must physically appear at the courthouse to stay abreast of calendar management, as the dockets in these cases are not accessible on the court’s website as they are for divorce cases.

US District Court Judge Andrew P Gordon Order of February 12, 2024.

Michael Sternberg, an unmarried father from Nevada, has been embroiled in legal battles within the Santa Clara family courts for five years. Recently, he initiated a lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of Family Code § 7643.

Remote Access to Court Files:  Free for Attorneys, Costly for Poor Parents

In addition to contesting the constitutionality of California’s parentage laws, Sternberg is urging the federal court to address the issue of unequal access to family court case files, particularly remote access.

Policies in Santa Clara County Superior Court afford attorneys affiliated with the local bar association unrestricted remote access to divorce and parentage case files 24/7, regardless of their involvement in the case. Local attorneys also enjoy the privilege of downloading court documents at no cost.

Conversely, out-of-area attorneys, self-represented parents, the general public, and the press are required to physically visit the courthouse during limited business hours and pay $0.50 per page to obtain copies of public court files.*

Unmarried parents have voiced complaints about the law and policies, particularly concerning the retention of attorneys from outside the area. For an out-of-area attorney to consider taking a parentage case, they must appear at the courthouse with written approval from one of the parents in order to view the file.

Managing parentage cases poses additional challenges for an attorney or self- represented parent. Hearings in these cases are not listed on the public court website as divorce cases are, making case management difficult for unwed parents or their attorneys.

Generational Harm from California’s Slut-Shaming Laws

An unwed mother on social media expressed frustration when recalling she had been unaware a custody lawsuit had been filed by her child’s father. Parentage cases do not appear on county court websites, making them impossible to locate, even for the parents directly involved in the case.

“Family court took my son’s childhood and my right to be a mother using these slut-shaming laws”- Anonymous unwed Silicon Valley mother.

Another mother from Silicon Valley spent 17 years and significant financial resources battling her child’s father and his well-funded attorneys over custody and child support. Despite the protracted legal ordeal, there exists no official record of the case, effectively erasing the child’s history in the public domain. Throughout the litigation, therapists and minors’ counsel were introduced into the case, yet the mother lost custody of her child as the public and press were denied access to the court files of her court hearings.

“After a brief sexual relationship, my son’s father and I entered the family courts when our son was a 6-month-old baby. I endured relentless and costly litigation for over 17 years, yet there is no record of my efforts to protect my son and maintain a presence in his life,” she recounted to the Vanguard.

Married parents dealing with issues including income, drug abuse, alcohol dependency, domestic violence, or other challenges during a divorce have their entire lives documented in public court files, including the public disclosure of their minor children’s names and birthdates. In stark contrast, unmarried parents enjoy complete privacy regarding their financial information, income and all aspects of their parenting and children’s lives.

The glaring disparity in treatment between married and unmarried parents, and their children, in California’s family courts raises serious constitutional concerns that a Nevada federal court judge appears willing to address.

*Correction: the original version listed the cost at $1 per page, but it is $0.50 per page.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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