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Dead Beat Dad No Kids Order*

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'Deadbeat dad' told: No more kids Wis. court backs threat of prison

By Joan Biskupic


In an unprecedented action against ''deadbeat dads,'' the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled 4-3 on Tuesday that a man who owed $25,000 in child support could be ordered not to father anymore children as a condition of probation.

If David Oakley, who already has had nine children with four women, fails to abide by the condition, he faces 8 years in prison. The decision, which raises important questions about the right to have children, was written by the court's four male justices over the dissent of the court's three female justices.

The dissenters said it was the first time any court in the nation had limited someone's right to procreate based on the ability to pay child support. ''Ultimately, the majority's decision may affect the rights of every citizen of this state, man or woman, rich or poor,'' Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote.

The decision is likely to reverberate across the USA, legal analysts say, as judges confront child-support dodgers and a minefield of family and reproductive law. Disputes over how far government can go to control procreation typically have involved pregnant women accused of fetal abuse rather than men and rights of fatherhood.

But, as the Wisconsin majority opinion by Justice Jon Wilcox noted, courts nationwide are dealing with staggering rates of default on child-support orders. Of the households owed child support across the USA, about a third receive no money and another third get only partial payment, federal figures show. ''Deadbeat parents'' owe more than $11 billion nationwide, the court noted.

The U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized that the decision whether to have children is a fundamental right. The Wisconsin court said that right is limited for Oakley because of his criminal status.

It added that his conviction for refusing to pay child support could have landed him in prison, ''which would have eliminated his right to procreate altogether'' for longer than the 5-year probation.

Dissenting justices emphasized the fundamental right to have children and said the action against Oakley was too drastic. Another noted it could lead a woman to have an abortion so Oakley doesn't have to go to prison.

One dissenter described the order as a ''state-sponsored, court-enforced financial test for future parenthood.''

The county judge who had attached the condition to Oakley's probation noted that if he were imprisoned, he wouldn't be able to support the children at all. The state high court termed the judge's approach a reasonable way to protect society and to help Oakley's rehabilitation.

Oakley's lawyer, Timothy Kay, said he was weighing whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and expressed disappointment that the state justices didn't consider less-severe means, such as garnishing Oakley's wages. The state attorney general had no immediate comment.

Duke University law dean Katharine Bartlett, who specializes in family law, predicted that courts increasingly will face such dilemmas over child support and privacy rights: ''I think the culture is moving in the direction of support for more-rigorous measures to enforce child-support orders.''

The case ultimately could influence other disputes over reproductive rights, she said.

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