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M.L.B. v. S.L.J.

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Brief Fact Summary.

.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

An inability to pay court fees should not be decisive of fundamental rights such as parental rights.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

Choices about marriage, family life, and the upbringing of children are among associational rights this Court has ranked as of basic importance in our society, rights sheltered by the Fourteenth Amendment against the State's unwarranted usurpation, disregard, or disrespect.

View Full Point of Law
Facts.

By order of a Mississippi Chancery Court, petitioner M.L.B.’s parental rights to her two minor children were forever terminated. M.L.B. sought to appeal from the termination decree, but Mississippi required that she pay in advance record preparation fees estimated at $2,352.36. Because M.L.B. lacked funds to pay the fees, her appeal was dismissed.

Issue.

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?

Held.

No, 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.

Dissent.

Justice Thomas

Since the Court has allowed for free transcripts in a civil appeal here, it will be applied too liberally to other civil cases. There is also the issue over M.L.B.’s claims that she should be protected under Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, as there is no clear explanation how they apply. Also, the Due Process Clause does not state that a state is even obliged to provide for an appeal. Furthermore, the petitioner has gone through an entire court process that was provided for her, ensuring her due process. The state’s duty to M.L.B. has thus been fulfilled.

Discussion.

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 found her unfit to remain a parent. Respondents urge that we will open floodgates if we do not rigidly restrict access to appeals to criminal cases. However, parental termination decrees are separate from regular civil actions such as divorce, paternity, and child custody. Parental termination decrees are among the most severe forms of state action because they “wor[k] a unique kind of deprivation.” Termination adjudications involve the authority of the state to destroy permanently all legal recognition of the parental relationship.


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