United States v. Kras
409 U.S. 434 (1973)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Kras, 409 U.S. 434 (1973)

United States v. Kras

No. 71-749

Argued October 18, 1972

Decided January 10, 1973

409 U.S. 434

Syllabus

Appellee, an indigent who filed a voluntary petition in bankruptcy, sought discharge without payment of the fees, aggregating no more than $50, that are a precondition to discharge in such a proceeding. The District Court, relying primarily on Boddie v. Connecticut, 401 U. S. 371 (where the Court held that a State could not consistently with due process and equal protection requirements, deny access to divorce courts to indigents unable to pay filing and other fees), held the bankruptcy fee provisions, as applied to appellee, an unconstitutional denial of Fifth Amendment rights of due process, including equal protection.

Held: This case is not controlled by Boddie, supra. For here, access to courts is not the only conceivable relief available to bankrupts; the filing-fee requirement does not deny an indigent the equal protection of the laws, since there is no constitutional right to obtain a discharge of one's debts in bankruptcy; the right to a discharge in bankruptcy is not a "fundamental" right demanding a compelling governmental interest as a precondition to regulation; and there is a rational basis for the fee requirement. Pp. 409 U. S. 443-450.

331 F.Supp. 1207, reversed.

BLACKMUN, 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. 409 U. S. 450. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which DOUGLAS, BRENNAN, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 409 U. S. 451. DOUGLAS and BRENNAN, JJ., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 409 U. S. 457. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 409 U. S. 458.

Page 409 U. S. 435

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Primary Holding

Due process does not require a federal district court to waive a bankruptcy filing fee for indigent individuals.

Facts

When he made a voluntary petition in bankruptcy, Kras argued that he should not need to pay the $50 fee for instituting these proceedings that was required by the Bankruptcy Act. Under Boddie v. Connecticut (1971), the Supreme Court had ruled that indigent people did not need to pay a fee to get a divorce. Kras, who also was indigent, argued that this case combined with the Fifth Amendment to waive the fee requirement in his situation, and the lower court agreed.

Opinions

Majority

  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist

A discharge of debts through the bankruptcy process is not a fundamental right, in contrast to the right to marry, which is protected by the ability to divorce. An indigent person still can gain access to basic necessities despite not receiving a bankruptcy discharge. Bankruptcy also is distinguishable from divorce because there are other ways of resolving outstanding debts, whereas there is only one process for getting a divorce. Rational basis is the appropriate standard of review, since no fundamental right is involved, and the plenary power of Congress over bankruptcy provides a sufficient rational basis. The filing fee also can be paid in weekly installments over nine months, which would allow the debtor to pay the very modest sum of $1.28 per week.

Dissent

  • Potter Stewart (Author)
  • William Orville Douglas
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Thurgood Marshall

The divorce precedent should control because this indigent individual also has no access to the courts and can barely put together enough funds for daily living. The government is responsible for enforcing the debtor's obligations, even though he entered into them voluntarily, which is another parallel with divorce. Bankruptcy is the only effective way to release these obligations, despite the availability of alternatives, since indigent debtors have no money to use in negotiations with creditors.

Dissent

  • Thurgood Marshall (Author)

It is unrealistic to expect an indigent person to put together even a very small amount of money, such as what would be required for the weekly installment payments. They do not have the funds for the modest expenditures that the majority likens to paying the fee. These assumptions are an improper basis for crafting a rule of law.

Dissent

  • William Orville Douglas (Author)
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.

Concurrence

  • Warren Earl Burger (Author)

Case Commentary

This case does not fit comfortably within either a due process or an equal protection analysis, since there is neither a fundamental right nor a protected group that is affected. However, it is logically strange to conclude that an individual must have at least some minimum amount of money to declare bankruptcy.

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