Family Law Keyed to Weisbergback
Brief Fact Summary. Appellants brought suit challenging the constitutionality of a statute requiring a fee to procure a divorce.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Due process prohibits a State from denying, solely because of inability to pay, access to its courts to individuals who seek judicial dissolution of their marriages. This is due to the basic position of the marriage relationship in society’s hierarchy of values and the concomitant state monopolization of the means for legally dissolving this relationship.
Facts. Appellants, welfare recipients residing in Connecticut, brought suit challenging requirements for payment of court fees and costs for service of process that restrict their access to the courts when bringing an action for divorce. The average cost for divorce was $60, with $45 to court costs and $15 for service of process by sheriff. There was no dispute as to the inability of the appellants to pay the fees. A three judge court found the statute constitutional.
Issue. Is the denial of appellants’ right to a court proceeding in which they may obtain a divorce a denial of appellants’ due process rights under the United States Constitution?
Held. Due process prohibits a State from denying, solely because of inability to pay, access to its courts to individuals who seek judicial dissolution of their marriages.
Due process typically involves rights of defendants, rather than those seeking access to the judicial process in the first instance. However, appellants are akin to that of defendants faced with exclusion from the only forum effectively empowered to settle their disputes. This is because adults may not divorce and separate themselves from the constraints of legal obligations that accompany marriage without state assistance.
Precedent established two important due process principles: 1) it requires, at a minimum, that absent a countervailing state interest of overriding significance, persons forced to settle their claims of right and duty through the judicial process must be given a meaningful opportunity to be heard; 2) a statute or rule may be held constitutionally invalid as applied when it operates to deprive an individual of a protected right although its general validity as a measure enacted in the legitimate exercise of state power is beyond question.
The State’s refusal to admit these appellants to its courts must be regarded as the equivalent of denying them an opportunity to be heard upon their claimed right to a dissolution of their marriages. This is a denial of due process, absent a sufficient countervailing justification for the State’s action. The State’s claims that the fee and cost requirements are for the prevention of frivolous litigation and to allocate scarce resources are insufficient to override the appellant’s constitutional rights.
Concurrence. The majority’s reliance on due process could result in unending expansion of constitutional rights to be heard in court. The present constitutional violation is better analyzed as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.
Discussion. The majority likens the appellants’ resort to the judicial process in this case to a criminal defendant called upon to defend his interests in court because the settlement technique is the only one available. The concurrence worries that this analysis would invalid many other laws, such as a fee for obtaining a fishing license.