Palmore v. Sidoti: The Troubling Effects of "Private Biases"
Painting Constitutional Law; Howard Wasserman and M.C. Mirow, eds., Brill, in Brill’s Legal History Library Series, 2020 Forthcoming
27 Pages Posted: 29 May 2020 Last revised: 24 Oct 2020
Date Written: May 2020
Eyes are a central motif in Xavier Cortada’s artistic portrayal of Palmore v. Sidoti, and appropriately so. The disembodied and disapproving eyes, in (as Cortado puts it) ‘a sea of Caucasian skin’, surround the three figures forming a family tableau at the center of the painting: Linda Sidoti Palmore, a white mother holding onto her young daughter, Melanie, also white, who in turn holds the hand of Clarence Palmore, a Black man, who became Linda’s new husband, and for a brief period, Melanie’s stepfather. This interracial family tableau so alarmed Linda’s ex-husband (and Melanie’s father), Anthony Sidoti, that, in 1982, he succeeded in persuading a state court judge in Tampa, Florida, where they all resided, to transfer custody of Melanie, then five years old, from Melanie’s mother to him. Two years later, a unanimous United States Supreme Court reversed that ruling, agreeing with Linda Sidoti Palmore that it violated the Constitution to remove her child from her because of her interracial marriage. It was unusual for a custody determination, typically the province of state courts, to reach the Supreme Court, but, as Chief Justice Burger explained in his opinion for the Court, the state court’s reliance on ‘what it regarded as the damaging impact on [Melanie] from remaining in a racially mixed household’ as a reason for transferring custody away from the mother raised ‘important federal concerns arising from the Constitution’s commitment to eradicating discrimination based on race.’
Keywords: Custody, interracial marriage, interracial households, racial prejudice, private bias, divorce, Fourteenth Amendment, family law, Palmore v. Sidoti, racism
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