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


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.


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

Primary Holding

There is no right to appointed counsel in civil cases that do not result in an indigent litigant losing his or her physical liberty.


Lassiter was found to have neglected her infant son and failed to provide him with adequate medical care. As a result, she lost custody of the child. She later was convicted of murder in an unrelated proceeding and sentenced to a prison term of 25 to 40 years. At a hearing where the Department of Social Services sought to terminate her parental rights, she did not indicate that she was indigent and was not represented by an attorney. Her parental rights were terminated after the taking of testimony, but she appealed on the grounds that she was entitled to have a lawyer appointed for her.



  • Potter Stewart (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist

The three main factors to consider in a due process claim are the importance of the private interests, the importance of the government's interests, and the risk of error from using the current procedures. Granted, the private interest in this case is extremely important because it involves the right to the companionship, care, custody, and management of children. The government also has a compelling interest in the child's well-being, however, and both sides have an interest in a fair and accurate decision. There is some conflict between the individual's interests and the state's interests because the state would prefer an efficient, inexpensive resolution to the matter. In situations such as these, when a parent may not understand all of the complex issues in the proceeding, there may be a high risk of error.

However, the lower court did not abuse its discretion because it considered each of these factors as they applied to the specific case. There are no grounds to reverse its decision because there is no clear Constitutional right to appointed counsel when personal liberty is not at risk.


  • Warren Earl Burger (Author)

The proceeding to terminate parental rights is not like a criminal proceeding because its goal is to benefit the child rather than punish the parent. The trial court is best positioned to make a determination on whether appointed counsel would be appropriate. In this situation, the long period of incarceration and the mother's previous lack of interest in her child make its conclusion reasonable.


  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Thurgood Marshall

There is no more fundamental right than the right of a parent to be involved in a child's life and upbringing. This may be equal to or even greater than the deprivation of an individual's personal liberty. There is a strong interest in preserving the family unit, so the right to appointed counsel should be applied here to protect the parent's right to a meaningful hearing.


  • John Paul Stevens (Author)

The impact on inheritance rights and the family relationship essentially equate to a deprivation of both property and liberty interests. Any attempted infringement on either interest gives rise to due process protections under the Fourteenth Amendment. Rather than such a rigid cost-balancing analysis, the court should have taken a looser approach based on fundamental fairness.

Case Commentary

The three key elements in determining whether additional procedures are justified can be found in Mathews v. Eldridge. They include the significance of the private interest in the situation, the significance of the government interest, and the extent to which additional procedures wil improve the outcome's accuracy.

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