Brief Fact Summary.
A Mississippi Chancery Court ordered petitioner M.L.B’s parental rights to her two minor children forever terminated. M.L.B sought to appeal from the termination decree, but the State of Mississippi required her to pay record preparation fees of approximately $2,352. She lacked funds to pay the fees and her appeal was dismissed.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
Neither the Due Process Clause nor the Equal Protection Clause requires a State to provide counsel at state expense to an indigent prisoner pursuing a discretionary appeal in the state system or petitioning for review in this Court.
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
After a Mississippi court ordered the petitioner’s parental rights to her two minor children forever terminated, the State of Mississippi required the petitioner to pay record preparation fees to be eligible to appeal. She lacked funds to pay the fees and her appeal was dismissed.
May a State, consistent with the Due Process and Equal Protection of the Fourteenth Amendment, condition appeals from trial court orders terminating parental rights on the affected parent’s ability to pay record preparation fees?
No. While a State need not provide trial counsel for an indigent defendant charged with nonfelony cases, the petitioner is endeavoring to defend against the State’s destruction of her family bonds and to resist the brand associated with a parental unfitness adjudication. Because what the petitioner is trying to defend is protected by equal protection, the decision of the lower court is reversed.
Absent proof of discriminatory purpose, official action does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment solely because it has a racially disparate impact. Under Davis, the Equal Protection Clause protects only against purposeful discrimination. A disparate impact alone does not violate equal protection. The Equal Protection Clause does not protect against all perceived social or economic inequity. It only seeks to guarantee equal laws, not equal results.
It is the due process, not equal protection, that remains as a sufficient basis for addressing procedures involving the rights and privileges inherent in family and personal relations.
Here, what the petitioner is forced to forfeit is substantially more than mere money. She is forced to dissolute her parental rights. Parental status termination is “irretrievably destructive” of the most fundamental family relationship. The Mississippi argues that the State’s legitimate interest in offsetting the costs of its court system is without merits because in parental status termination cases, appeals are few and unlikely to impose an undue burden on the State.