M. L. B. v. S. L. J.,
519 U.S. 102 (1996)

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M. L. J., ET UX.

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF MISSISSIPPI No. 95-853. Argued October 7, 1996-Decided December 16,1996

In a decree forever terminating petitioner M. L. B.'s parental rights to her two minor children, a Mississippi Chancery Court recited a segment of the governing Mississippi statute and stated, without elaboration, that respondents, the children's natural father and his second wife, had met their burden of proof by "clear and convincing evidence." The Chancery Court, however, neither described the evidence nor otherwise revealed precisely why M. L. B. was decreed a stranger to her children. M. L. B. filed a timely appeal from the termination decree, but Mississippi law conditioned her right to appeal on prepayment of record preparation fees estimated at $2,352.36. Lacking funds to pay the fees, M. L. B. sought leave to appeal informa pauperis. The Supreme Court of Mississippi denied her application on the ground that, under its precedent, there is no right to proceed in forma pauperis in civil appeals. Urging that the size of her pocketbook should not be dispositive when "an interest far more precious than any property right" is at stake, Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U. S. 745, 758-759, M. L. B. contends in this Court that a State may not, consistent with the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, condition appeals from trial court decrees terminating parental rights on the affected parent's ability to pay record preparation fees.

Held: Just as a State may not block an indigent petty offender's access to an appeal afforded others, see Mayer v. Chicago, 404 U. S. 189, 195-196, so Mississippi may not deny M. L. B., because of her poverty, appellate review of the sufficiency of the evidence on which the trial court based its parental termination decree. Pp. 110-128.

(a) The foundation case in the relevant line of decisions is Griffin v.

Illinois, 351 U. S. 12, in which the Court struck down an Illinois rule that effectively conditioned thoroughgoing appeals from criminal convictions on the defendant's procurement of a transcript of trial proceedings. The Illinois rule challenged in Griffin deprived most defendants lacking the means to pay for a transcript of any access to appellate review. Although the Federal Constitution guarantees no right to appellate review, id., at 18 (plurality opinion), once a State affords that right, Griffin held, the State may not "bolt the door to equal justice," id., at 24 (Frank-


furter, J., concurring in judgment). The Griffin plurality drew support for its decision from the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, id., at 13, 18, while Justice Frankfurter emphasized and explained the decision's equal protection underpinning, id., at 23. Of prime relevance to the question presented by M. L. B., Griffin's principle has not been confined to cases in which imprisonment is at stake, but extends to appeals from convictions of petty offenses, involving conduct "quasi criminal" in nature. Mayer, 404 U. S., at 196, 197. In contrast, an indigent defendant's right to counsel at state expense does not extend to nonfelony trials if no term of imprisonment is actually imposed. Scott v. Illinois, 440 U. S. 367, 373-374. Pp. 110-113.

(b) This Court has also recognized a narrow category of civil cases in which the State must provide access to its judicial processes without regard to a party's ability to pay court fees. See, e. g., Boddie v. Connecticut, 401 U. S. 371, 374 (divorce proceedings). Making clear, however, that a constitutional requirement to waive court fees in civil cases is the exception, not the general rule, the Court has refused to extend Griffin to the broad array of civil cases. See United States v. Kras, 409 U. S. 434, 445; Ortwein v. Schwab, 410 U. S. 656, 661 (per curiam). But the Court has consistently set apart from the mine run of civil cases those involving state controls or intrusions on family relationships. In that domain, to guard against undue official intrusion, the Court has examined closely and contextually the importance of the governmental interest advanced in defense of the intrusion. Pp. 113-116.

(c) M. L. B.'s case, involving the State's authority to sever permanently a parent-child bond, demands the close consideration the Court has long required when a family association "of basic importance in our society" is at stake. Boddie, 401 U. S., at 376. The Court approaches M. L. Bo's petition mindful of the gravity of the sanction imposed on her and in light of two prior decisions most immediately in point: Lassiter v. Department of Social Servs. of Durham Cty., 452 U. S. 18 (appointment of counsel for indigent defendants in parental status termination proceedings is not routinely required by the Constitution, but should be determined on a case-by-case basis), and Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U. S. 745 ("clear and convincing" proof standard is constitutionally required in parental termination proceedings). Although both Lassiter and Santo sky yielded divided opinions, the Court was unanimously of the view that "the interest of parents in their relationship with their children is sufficiently fundamental to come within the finite class of liberty interests protected by the Fourteenth Amendment," Santosky, 455 U. S., at 774 (REHNQUIST, J., dissenting), and that "[f]ew consequences of judicial action are so grave as the severance of natural family ties," id., at 787. Pp. 116-119.

Full Text of Opinion

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