Lassiter v. Department of Social Svcs.
452 U.S. 18 (1981)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Lassiter v. Department of Social Svcs., 452 U.S. 18 (1981)

Lassiter v. Department of Social Services

No. 79-6423

Argued February 23, 1981

Decided June 1, 1981

452 U.S. 18

Syllabus

In 1975, a North Carolina state court adjudicated petitioner's infant son to be a neglected child and transferred him to the custody of respondent Durham County Department of Social Services. A year later, petitioner was convicted of second-degree murder, and she began a sentence of 25 to 40 years of imprisonment. In 1978, respondent petitioned the court to terminate petitioner's parental rights. Petitioner was brought from prison to the hearing on the petition, and the court, after determining, sua sponte, that she had been given ample opportunity to obtain counsel and that her failure to do so was without just cause, did not postpone the proceedings. Petitioner did not aver that she was indigent, and the court did not appoint counsel for her. At the hearing, petitioner cross-examined a social worker from respondent, and both petitioner and her mother testified under the court's questioning. The court thereafter terminated petitioner's parental status, finding that she had not contacted respondent about her child since December, 1975, and that she had "wilfully failed to maintain concern or responsibility for the welfare of the minor." The North Carolina Court of Appeals rejected petitioner's sole contention on appeal that, because she was indigent, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment required the State to provide counsel for her. The North Carolina Supreme Court summarily denied discretionary review.

Held:

1. The Constitution does not require the appointment of counsel for indigent parents in every parental status termination proceeding. The decision whether due process calls for the appointment of counsel is to be answered in the first instance by the trial court, subject to appellate review. Pp. 452 U. S. 232.

(a) With regard to what the "fundamental fairness" requirement of the Due Process Clause means concerning the right to appointed counsel, there is a presumption that an indigent litigant has a right to appointed counsel only when, if he loses, he may be deprived of his physical liberty. The other elements of the due process decision -- the private interest at stake, the government's interest, and the risk that the procedures used will lead to erroneous decisions, Mathews v.

Page 452 U. S. 19

Eldridge,424 U. S. 319, 424 U. S. 335 -- must be balanced against each other and then weighed against the presumption. Pp. 452 U. S. 25-27.

(b) The parent's interest in the accuracy and justice of the decision to terminate parental status is an extremely important one (and may be supplemented by the dangers of criminal liability inherent in some termination proceedings); the State shares with the parent an interest in a correct decision, has a relatively weak pecuniary interest in avoiding the expense of appointed counsel and the cost of the lengthened proceedings his presence may cause, and, in some but not all cases, has a possibly stronger interest in informal procedures; and the complexity of the proceeding and the incapacity of the uncounseled parent could be, but would not always be, great enough to make the risk of an erroneous deprivation of the parent's rights insupportably high. Thus if, in a given case, the parent's interests were at their strongest, the State's interests were at their weakest, and the risks of error were at their peak, the Eldridge factors would overcome the presumption against the right to appointed counsel, and due process would require appointment of counsel. Pp. 452 U. S. 27-32.

2. In the circumstances of this case, the trial judge did not deny petitioner due process of law when he did not appoint counsel for her. The record shows, inter alia, that the petition to terminate petitioner's parental rights contained no allegations of neglect or abuse upon which criminal charges could be based; no expert witnesses testified; the case presented no specially troublesome points of law; the presence of counsel could not have made a determinative difference for petitioner; she had expressly declined to appear at the 1975 child custody hearing; and the trial court found that her failure to make an effort to contest the termination proceeding was without cause. Pp. 452 U. S. 32-33.

43 N.C.App. 525, 259 S.E.2d 336, affirmed.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, POWELL,, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 452 U. S. 34. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 452 U. S. 35. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 452 U. S. 59.

Page 452 U. S. 20

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