Santosky v. Kramer
Decided on Mar. 24, 1982; 455 US 745

New York state standard for terminating parental rights is challenged by neglectful parents


A. Issues Discussed: Civil Rights (state), Fourteenth Amendment, Parental Rights

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does a state law requiring only "a fair preponderance of evidence" to support the termination of parental rights violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?


A. Background:

Petitioners John and Annie Santosky were reported on numerous instances of parental neglect in 1973.  In November 1973, respondent Kramer, Commissioner of the Ulster County Department of Social Services, initiated neglect proceedings against the Santoskys under Fam. Ct. Act 1022. All three of the Santoskys' children were removed from their household the following year. In October 1978, respondent petitioned Ulster County Family Court to terminate the Santoskys' parental rights to the three children.  Under New York law, if the State is convinced that "positive, nurturing parent-child relationships" no longer exist, it can initiate "permanent neglect" proceedings to terminate, against parental objections, the rights of parents to their biological children. The New York Family Court Act (section 622) requires only a "air preponderance of the evidence" standard to support the finding of permanent neglect. The petitioners claimed that the "air preponderance of the evidence" standard of the act violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, but the Family Court rejected their challenge. Weighing the evidence presented under the standard, the Family Cout found permanent neglect. The Family Court later ruled that the best interests of the children required the permanent termination of petitioners' custody. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court affirmed, and the New York Court of Appeals dismissed petitioners' appeal. The petitioners then sought review by a higher court and the US Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Martin Guggenheim argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs was Alan N. Sussman.
Steven Domenic Scavuzzo argued the cause pro hac vice for respondents. With him on the brief was H. Randall Bixler. Wilfrid E. Marrin and Frederick J. Magovern filed a brief for respondents Balogh et al.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed by Marcia Robinson Lowry, Steven R. Shapiro, and Margaret Hayman for the American Civil Liberties Union Children's Rights Project et al.; and by Louise Gruner Gans, Catherine P. Mitchell, Norman Siegel, Gary Connor, and Daniel Greenberg for Community Action for Legal Services, Inc., et al. Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed by Robert Abrams, Attorney General, Shirley Adelson Siegel, Solicitor General, and Lawrence J. Logan and Robert J. Schack, Assistant Attorneys General, for the State of New York; and by Dave Frohnmayer, Attorney General, William F. Gary, Solicitor General, and Jan Peter Londahl, Assistant Attorney General, for the State of Oregon.

"Under New York law, the State may terminate, over parental objection, the rights of parents in their natural child upon a finding that the child is 'permanently neglected.' The New York Family Court Act 622... requires that only a 'fair preponderance of the evidence' support that finding. Thus, in New York, the factual certainty required to extinguish the parent-child relationship is no greater than that necessary to award money damages in an ordinary civil action.

Today we hold that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment demands more than this. Before a State may sever completely and irrevocably the rights of parents in their natural child, due process requires that the State support its allegations by at least clear and convincing evidence…

The fundamental liberty interest of natural parents in the care, custody, and management of their child does not evaporate simply because they have not been model parents or have lost temporary custody of their child to the State. Even when blood relationships are strained, parents retain a vital interest in preventing the irretrievable destruction of their family life. If anything, persons faced with forced dissolution of their parental rights have a more critical need for procedural protections than do those resisting state intervention into ongoing family affairs. When the State moves to destroy weakened familial bonds, it must provide the parents with fundamentally fair procedures…

The logical conclusion of this balancing process is that the 'fair preponderance of the evidence' standard prescribed by Fam. Ct. Act 622 violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment... The next question, then, is whether a 'beyond a reasonable doubt' or a 'clear and convincing' standard is constitutionally mandated.

We, of course, express no view on the merits of petitioners' claims. At a hearing conducted under a constitutionally proper standard, they may or may not prevail. Without deciding the outcome under any of the standards we have approved, we vacate the judgment of the Appellate Division and remand the case for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion."
Justice Vote: 5 Pro vs. 4 Con

  • Blackmun, H. Pro (wrote majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Pro (joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (joined dissenting opinion)
  • White, B. Con (joined dissenting opinion)
  • O’Connor, S. Con (joined dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed a brief of amici curiae urging reversal; The US Supreme Court reversed the lower court's ruling in a 5-4 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.