Tuesday, March 20, 2012
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for Astrue v. Capato, a case involving the question of whether twins conceived in vitro following their father’s death are entitled to survivor benefits. The twins’ father, Nick Capto, preserved his sperm in 2000 after being diagnosed with cancer. After his death in 2002, his wife, Karen Capato, used the persevered sperm to give birth to twins. The Social Security Administration subsequently rejected Karen’s application for survivor benefits on behalf of the twins. The U.S. Court of Appeals found that the twins were the “undisputed biological children” of both parents and qualified for survivor benefits.
During the government’s argument, Eric Miller, assistant to the solicitor general, argued that in situations where an individual does not fit a definition found in the Social Security law (as the twins did not fit the definition of “child” in this case), the government is to look to the laws of the state to determine whether the individual qualifies for survivor benefits. Miller then argued that, in Florida (the state in which Nick Capato died), posthumously conceived children cannot inherit a parent’s property unless specified in the deceased parent's will.
Charles Rothfeld, counsel for the Captos, argued that the Social Security law “unambiguously dictates” that the twins qualify as children for survivor benefits purposes. He further argued that any other reading of the law “disfavors children who are born through…assisted means.”
Justice John Roberts Jr., toward the end of Rothfeld’s argument, stated that the Captos lose their argument under the Chevron doctrine if the statute is ambiguous because Chevron defers any unclear statute interpretations to federal agencies—in this case, the Social Security Administration. In response, Rothfeld argued that Congress had not envisioned current technologies when it drafted the law. Based on the argument, it appeared that the Court did not find it prudent or acceptable to supplant the government’s interpretation of “child” and view of how to deal with new technologies with its own interpretation and view.
See Tony Mauro, Justices Torn Over Whether Children Conceived In Vitro Are Entitled to Survivor Benefits, Law.com, Mar. 19, 2012; Bill Mears, Justices At Odds Over Benefits For Child Conceived After Death of a Parent, CNN, Mar. 19, 2012.
Special thanks to Margaret Ryznar for bringing this article to my attention.