Little v. Streater
Decided on June 1, 1981; 452 US 1


A. Issues Discussed: Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does the policy of requiring blood tests be paid by the requesting party in paternity actions violate the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment for indigent defendants?


A. Background:

"On May 21, 1975, appellee Gloria Streater, while unmarried, gave birth to a female child, Kenyatta Chantel Streater. As a requirement stemming from her child's receipt of public assistance, appellee identified appellant Walter Little as the child's father to the Connecticut Department of Social Services. The Department then provided an attorney for appellee to bring a paternity suit against appellant in the Court of Common Pleas at New Haven to establish his liability for the child's support.

At the time the paternity action was commenced, appellant was incarcerated in the Connecticut Correctional Institution at Enfield. Through his counsel, who was provided by a legal aid organization, appellant moved the trial court to order blood grouping tests on appellee and her child pursuant to Conn[ecticut] Gen[eral] Stat[ute], which... includes the provision that '[t]he costs of making such tests shall be chargeable against the party making the motion.' Appellant asserted that he was indigent and asked that the State be ordered to pay for the tests. The trial court granted the motion insofar as it sought blood grouping tests but denied the request that they be furnished at the State's expense.

For 'financial reasons,' no blood grouping tests were performed even though they had been authorized. The paternity action was tried to the court on September 28, 1978. Both appellee and appellant, who was still a state prisoner, testified at trial. After listening to the testimony, the court found that appellant was the child's father. Following a subsequent hearing on damages, the court entered judgment against appellant in the amount of $6,974.48, which included the 'lying-in' expenses of appellee and the child, 'accrued maintenance' through October 31, 1978, and the 'costs of suit plus reasonable attorney's fees.' In addition, appellant was ordered to pay child support at the rate of $2 per month - $1 toward the arrearage amount of $6,974.48 and $1 toward a current monthly award of $163.58 - directly to Connecticut's Department of Finance and Control.

The Appellate Session of the Connecticut Superior Court affirmed the trial court's judgment...

Thereafter, appellant's petition for certification was denied by the Connecticut Supreme Court..." On appeal the US Supreme Court reversed and remanded the judgment of the Appellate Session of the Connecticut Superior Court.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Brief of amici curiae urging reversal by Bruce J. Ennis, Jr., for the American Civil Liberties Union et al.

Jon C. Blue, by appointment of the Court, argued the cause and filed a brief for appellant.

Stephen J. McGovern, Assistant Attorney General of Connecticut, argued the cause for appellee. With him on the brief was Carl R. Ajello, Attorney General.


"Due process, 'unlike some legal rules, is not a technical conception with a fixed content unrelated to time, place and circumstances.' Rather, it is 'flexible and calls for such procedural protections as the particular situation demands.'...

The ability of blood grouping tests to exonerate innocent putative fathers was confirmed by a 1976 report developed jointly by the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association... These systems were found to be 'reasonable' in cost and to provide a 91% cumulative probability of negating paternity for erroneously accused Negro men and 93% for white men...

Appellant emphasizes that, unlike a common dispute between private parties, the State's involvement in this paternity proceeding was considerable and manifest, giving rise to a constitutional duty. Because appellee's child was a recipient of public assistance, Connecticut law compelled her, upon penalty of fine and imprisonment for contempt, 'to disclose the name of the putative father under oath and to institute an action to establish the paternity of said child.' The State's Attorney General automatically became a party to the action, and any settlement agreement required his approval or that of the Commissioner of Human Resources or Commissioner of Income Maintenance. The State referred this mandatory paternity suit to appellee's lawyer 'for prosecution' and paid his fee as well as all costs of the litigation. In addition, the State will be the recipient of the monthly support payments to be made by appellant pursuant to the trial court's judgment... Accordingly, appellant need not, and does not, contend that Connecticut has a constitutional obligation to fund blood tests for an indigent's defense in ordinary civil litigation between private parties...

Under Connecticut law... the defendant in a paternity suit is placed at a distinct disadvantage in that his testimony alone is insufficient to overcome the plaintiff's prima facie case. Among the most probative additional evidence the defendant might offer are the results of blood grouping tests, but if he is indigent, the State essentially denies him that reliable scientific proof by requiring that he bear its cost. In substance, the State has created an adverse presumption regarding the defendant's testimony by elevating the weight to be accorded the mother's imputation of him...Yet not only is the State inextricably involved in paternity litigation such as this and responsible for an imbalance between the parties, it in effect forecloses what is potentially a conclusive means for an indigent defendant to surmount that disparity and exonerate himself. Such a practice is irreconcilable with the command of the Due Process Clause."

The US Supreme Court reversed and remanded the judgment of the Appellate Session of the Connecticut Superior Court.

Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con

  • Burger, W. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.P. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stewart, P. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged reversal of the Appellate Session of the Connecticut Superior Court's judgment; the Supreme Court reversed and remanded in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.