U.S. Supreme Court strikes down gender differences in citizenship law

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A unanimous Supreme Court on Monday struck down part of an unusual immigration law that treats fathers and mothers differently when it comes to conferring citizenship on children born outside the U.S.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the 1940s-era law "stunningly anachronistic" in the way it stereotypes men and woman. Her opinion cites several landmark discrimination cases that she successfully argued before the high court for the principle that having one rule for mothers and another for fathers is unconstitutional.

But in a twist, the ruling failed to provide any relief to Luis Ramon Morales-Santana, the New York resident who successfully challenged the law. The court said tougher -- not easier -- standards for attaining citizenship should apply to everyone.

The ruling affects a law that applies to children born abroad to one parent who is an American and one who isn't. The law made it harder for children of unwed American fathers to gain citizenship themselves.

Under the law, a child born outside the United States to an unwed citizen father and a noncitizen mother can become a U.S. citizen at birth if the father lived in the U.S. for five years, with at least two of those years coming after the age of 14. But an American mother must only have lived in the U.S. continuously for one year to meet the requirement.

A challenge came from Morales-Santana, who was born in the Dominican Republic to an unwed U.S. citizen father and a Dominican mother and moved to the U.S. when he was 13. He asserted he was a U.S. citizen after authorities sought to deport him following convictions for robbery and attempted murder. But his father did not satisfy the five-year requirement.

A federal appeals court struck down the law and said the shorter one-year period must apply to both unwed fathers and mothers. The Obama administration appealed.

Ginsburg said the law was based on flawed and outdated assumptions about men and women that pervaded the country's citizenship laws: "In marriage, husband is dominant, wife subordinate; unwed mother is the natural and sole guardian of a nonmarital child."

For close to a half century, she said, the court "has viewed with suspicion laws that rely on overbroad generalizations about the different talents, capacities or preferences of males and females." Ginsburg said the gender line Congress drew "is incompatible with the Constitution's guarantee of the equal protection of the laws to all persons."

The government had urged the justices to uphold the law's gender-based differences. The Justice Department said Congress wanted to make sure there is a strong connection between a child born overseas and the United States before granting citizenship. The law also considered the practices of other countries.

But while the court struck down the gender differences in the law, Ginsburg said the longer five-year period should continue apply to both mothers and fathers until Congress decides on a different length of time. That means Morales-Santana is still unable to win his citizenship case.

"Going forward, Congress may address the issue and settle on a uniform prescription that neither favors nor disadvantages any person on the basis of gender," Ginsburg said.

Ginsburg's opinion was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the outcome, but wrote separately to say that it was not necessary to rule on the constitutionality of the law since Morales-Santana could not get any relief. He was joined by Justice Samuel Alito.

Justice Neil Gorsuch did not take part in the case, which was argued before his confirmation to the court.