Brief Fact Summary. The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) held that the state of Mississippi could not condition appeals from trial court decrees terminating the Petitioner, M.L.B.’s (Petitioner), parental rights on the affected parent’s (the Petitioner) ability to pay record preparation fees.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. The Due Process and Equal Protection Causes of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution) may preclude a state from conditioning appeals from trial court decrees terminating parental rights on the affected parent’s ability to pay record preparation fees.
The Court held: Given the basic position of the marriage relationship in this society's hierarchy of values and the concomitant state monopolization of the means for legally dissolving this relationship, due process does prohibit a State from denying, solely because of inability to pay, access to its courts to individuals who seek judicial dissolution of their marriages.View Full Point of Law
Issue. May a state, consistent with the Due Process and Equal Protection Causes of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, condition appeals from trial court decrees terminating parental rights on the affected parent’s ability to pay record preparation fees?
Held. No. Judgment reversed. Although the Constitution guarantees no right to appellate review, once a state affords that right, the state may not “bolt the door to equal justice.” (Griffin v. Illinois). This Court has not extended Griffin to the broad array of civil cases. But the Supreme Court has consistently set apart the cases involving those state controls or intrusions on family relationships. In that domain, to guard against undue official intrusion, the Supreme Court has examined closely the importance of the governmental interest advanced in defense of the intrusion. The Respondents, S.L.J. and others (Respondents) urge the Court to classify Petitioner’s case with the generality of civil cases, in which indigent persons have no constitutional right to proceed in forma pauperis. Petitioner contends that the accusatory state action she is trying to fend off is barely distinguishable from criminal condemnation in view of the magnitude and permanence of the loss she faces. Here
, the stakes for Petitioner, forced dissolution of her parental rights, are large. In aligning parental status termination decrees and criminal convictions that carry no jail time for appeal access purposes, the general rule that fee requirements are ordinarily examined only for rationality is not questioned. However, there are two exceptions to that rule. The first exception is the basic right to participate in the political process. The second exception, which applies here, is that access to judicial processes in cases criminal or “quasi criminal” in nature,” may not turn on the ability to pay. Decrees forever terminating parental rights fall into the category of cases, in which the state may not “bolt the door to equal justice.” Therefore, a state may not condition appeals from trial court decrees terminating parental rights on the affected parent’s ability to pay record preparation fees.
Dissent. The cases on which the majority relies were questionable when decided and have been undermined since. Even accepting those cases, the majority takes them too far.
Concurrence. The cases more on point and which are most persuasive are the cases addressing procedures involving the rights and privileges inherent in family and personal relations.
Discussion. This case uses the Due Process and Equal Protection Causes of the Constitution as vehicles to invalidate certain economic barriers to the appeals process in parental termination cases.