M.L.B. v. S.L.J.
Decided on Dec. 16, 1996; 519 US 102


I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed: Due process, parental rights

B. Legal Question Presented:

May a State, consistent with the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, condition appeals from trial court decrees terminating parental rights on the affected parent's ability to pay record preparation fees?

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

"In a decree forever terminating petitioner M. L. B.'s parental rights to her two minor children, a Mississippi Chancery Court recited a segment of the governing Mississippi statute and stated, without elaboration, that respondents, the children's natural father and his second wife, had met their burden of proof by 'clear and convincing evidence.' The Chancery Court, however, neither described the evidence nor otherwise revealed precisely why M. L. B. was decreed a stranger to her children. M. L. B. filed a timely appeal from the termination decree, but Mississippi law conditioned her right to appeal on prepayment of record preparation fees estimated at $2,352.36. Lacking funds to pay the fees, M. L. B. sought leave to appeal in forma pauperis. The Supreme Court of Mississippi denied her application on the ground that, under its precedent, there is no right to proceed in forma pauperis in civil appeals. Urging that the size of her pocketbook should not be dispositive when 'an interest far more precious than any property right' is at stake..., M. L. B. contends in this Court that a State may not, consistent with the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, condition appeals from trial court decrees terminating parental rights on the affected parent's ability to pay record preparation fees."

On appeal the US Supreme Court reversed and remanded the judgment of the Supreme Court of Mississippi.

B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
ACLU (Counsel of Record) Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Robert B. McDuff argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Danny Lampley and Steven R. Shapiro. Martha Matthews filed a brief for the National Center for Youth Law et al. as amici curiae. Rickey T. Moore, Special Assistant Attorney General of Mississippi, argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief was Mike Moore, Attorney General.
IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"Just as a State may not block an indigent petty offender's access to an appeal afforded others..., so Mississippi may not deny M. L. B., because of her poverty, appellate review of the sufficiency of the evidence on which the trial court based its parental termination decree...

This Court has... recognized a narrow category of civil cases in which the State must provide access to its judicial processes without regard to a party's ability to pay court fees. Making clear, however, that a constitutional requirement to waive court fees in civil cases is the exception, not the general rule...

M. L. B.'s case, involving the State's authority to sever permanently a parent child bond, demands the close consideration the Court has long required when a family association 'of basic importance in our society' is at stake... [T]he Court agrees with M. L. B. that... her parental termination appeal must be treated as the Court has treated petty offense appeals, and Mississippi may not withhold the transcript she needs to gain review of the order ending her parental status. The Court's decisions concerning access to judicial processes..., reflect both equal protection and due process concerns. In these cases, '[d]ue process and equal protection principles converge...

[T]he stakes for M. L. B. are large. Parental status termination is 'irretrievabl[y] destructi[ve]' of the most fundamental family relationship... [The] Chancellor's order in this case simply recites statutory language; it describes no evidence, and otherwise details no reasons for finding M. L. B. 'clear[ly] and convincing[ly]' unfit to be a parent. Only a transcript can reveal the sufficiency, or insufficiency, of the evidence to support that stern judgment. Mississippi's countervailing interest in offsetting the costs of its court system is unimpressive when measured against the stakes for M. L. B... The Court places decrees forever terminating parental rights in the category of cases in which the State may not 'bolt the door to equal justice.'

M. L. B... is endeavoring to defend against the State's destruction of her family bonds, and to resist the brand associated with a parental unfitness adjudication. Like a defendant resisting criminal conviction, she seeks to be spared from the State's devastatingly adverse action... [T]he Mississippi prescription here at issue is not merely disproportionate in impact, but wholly contingent on one's ability to pay, thereby 'visit[ing] different consequences on two categories of persons'... This Court has repeatedly distinguished parental status termination decrees from mine run civil actions on the basis of the unique deprivation termination decrees work: permanent destruction of all legal recognition of the parental relationship..."

The US Supreme Court reversed and remanded the judgment of the Supreme Court of Mississippi.

Justice Vote: 6 Pro vs. 3 Con

  • Ginsburg, R. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Breyer, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Thomas, C. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Scalia, A. Con (Joined Thomas' dissenting opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

    The ACLU, as counsel of record, urged reversal of the Supreme Court of Mississippi's judgment; the Supreme Court reversed and remanded in a 6-3 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.