No. 95-853

M. L. B., PETITIONER v. S. L. J.

[December 16, 1996]

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court.

By order of a Mississippi Chancery Court, petitioner M. L. B.'s parental rights to her two minor children were forever terminated. M. L. B. sought to appeal from the termination decree, but Mississippi required that she pay in advance record preparation fees estimated at $2,352.36. Because M. L. B. lacked funds to pay the fees, her appeal was dismissed.

Urging that the size of her pocketbook should not be dispositive when "an interest far more precious than any property right" is at stake, M. L. B. tenders this question, which we agreed to hear and decide: May a State, 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? We hold that, just as a State may not block an indigent petty offender's access to an appeal afforded others, 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 found her unfit to remain a parent.

Petitioner M. L. B. and respondent S. L. J. are, respectively, the biological mother and father of two children, a boy born in April 1985, and a girl born in February 1987. In June 1992, after a marriage that endured nearly eight years, M. L. B. and S. L. J. were divorced. The children remained in their father's custody, as M. L. B. and S. L. J. had agreed at the time of the divorce.

S. L. J. married respondent J. P. J. in September 1992. In November of the following year, S. L. J. and J. P. J. filed suit in Chancery Court in Mississippi, seeking to terminate the parental rights of M. L. B. and to gain court approval for adoption of the children by their stepmother, J. P. J. The complaint alleged that M. L. B. had not maintained reasonable visitation and was in arrears on child support payments. M. L. B. counterclaimed, seeking primary custody of both children and contending that S. L. J. had not permitted her reasonable visitation, despite a provision in the divorce decree that he do so.

After taking evidence on August 18, November 2, and December 12, 1994, the Chancellor, in a decree filed December 14, 1994, terminated all parental rights of the natural mother, approved the adoption, and ordered that J. P. J., the adopting parent, be shown as the mother of the children on their birth certificates. Twice reciting a segment of the governing Mississippi statute, the Chancellor declared that there had been a "substantial erosion of the relationship between the natural mother, [M. L. B.], and the minor children," which had been caused "at least in part by [M. L. B.'s] serious neglect, abuse, prolonged and unreasonable absence or unreasonable failure to visit or communicate with her minor children."

The Chancellor stated, without elaboration, that the natural father and his second wife had met their burden of proof by "clear and convincing evidence." Nothing in the Chancellor's order describes the evidence, however, or otherwise reveals precisely why M. L. B. was decreed, forevermore, a stranger to her children.

In January 1995, M. L. B. filed a timely appeal and paid the $100 filing fee. The Clerk of the Chancery Court, several days later, estimated the costs for preparing and transmitting the record: $1,900 for the transcript (950 pages at $2 per page); $438 for other documents in the record (219 pages at $2 per page); $4.36 for binders; and $10 for mailing. Id., at 15.

Mississippi grants civil litigants a right to appeal, but conditions that right on prepayment of costs. Unable to pay $2,352.36, M. L. B. sought leave to appeal in forma pauperis. The Supreme Court of Mississippi denied her application in August 1995. Under its precedent, the court said, "[t]he right to proceed in forma pauperis in civil cases exists only at the trial level."

M. L. B. had urged in Chancery Court and in the Supreme Court of Mississippi, and now urges in this Court, that "where the State's judicial processes are invoked to secure so severe an alteration of a litigant's fundamental rights--the termination of the parental relationship with one's natural child--basic notions of fairness [and] of equal protection under the law, . . . guaranteed by [the Mississippi and Federal Constitutions], require that a person be afforded the right of appellate review though one is unable to pay the costs of such review in advance."

Courts have confronted, in diverse settings, the "age old problem" of "[p]roviding equal justice for poor and rich, weak and powerful alike." Concerning access to appeal in general, and transcripts needed to pursue appeals in particular, Griffin is the foundation case.

Griffin involved an Illinois rule that effectively conditioned thoroughgoing appeals from criminal convictions on the defendant's procurement of a transcript of trial proceedings. Indigent defendants, other than those sentenced to death, were not excepted from the rule, so in most cases, defendants without means to pay for a transcript had no access to appellate review at all. Although the Federal Constitution guarantees no right to appellate review, once a State affords that right, Griffin held, the State may not "bolt the door to equal justice...." 

Justice Frankfurter, concurring in the judgment in Griffin, emphasized and explained the decision's equal protection underpinning: "Of course a State need not equalize economic conditions. . . . But when a State deems it wise and just that convictions be susceptible to review by an appellate court, it cannot by force of its exactions draw a line which precludes convicted indigent persons, forsooth erroneously convicted, from securing such a review . . . ." 

Of prime relevance to the question presented by M. L. B.'s petition, Griffin's principle has not been confined to cases in which imprisonment is at stake....

We have 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. In Boddie v. Connecticut, 401 U.S. 371 (1971), we held that the State could not deny a divorce to a married couple based on their inability to pay approximately $60 in court costs. Crucial to our decision in Boddie was the fundamental interest at stake. "[G]iven the basic position of the marriage relationship in this society's hierarchy of values and the concomitant state monopolization of the means for legally dissolving this relationship," we said, due process "prohibit[s] a State from denying, solely because of inability to pay, access to its courts to individuals who seek judicial dissolution of their marriages." See also Little v. Streater, 452 U.S. 1, 13-17 (1981) (State must pay for blood grouping tests sought by an indigent defendant to enable him to contest a paternity suit)....

The following year, in United States v. Kras, 409 U.S. 434 (1973), the Court clarified that a constitutional requirement to waive court fees in civil cases is the exception, not the general rule. Kras concerned fees, totaling $50, required to secure a discharge in bankruptcy. The Court recalled in Kras that "[o]n many occasions we have recognized the fundamental importance . . . under our Constitution" of "the associational interests that surround the establishment and dissolution of th[e] [marital] relationship." But bankruptcy discharge entails no "fundamental interest," we said. Although "obtaining [a] desired new start in life [is] important," that interest, the Court explained, "does not rise to the same constitutional level" as the interest in establishing or dissolving a marriage....

In sum, this Court has not extended Griffin to the broad array of civil cases. But tellingly, the Court has consistently set apart from the mine run of 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. 

Choices about marriage, family life, and the upbringing of children are among associational rights this Court has ranked as "of basic importance in our society," rights sheltered by the Fourteenth Amendment against the State's unwarranted usurpation, disregard, or disrespect. See, for example, Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), Zablocki v. Redhail, 434 U.S. 374 (1978), and Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967) (marriage); Skinner v. Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson, 316 U.S. 535 (1942) (procreation); Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), and Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923) (raising children). 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 so undeniably important is at stake....

Although both Lassiter and Santosky 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." It was also the Court's unanimous view that "[f]ew consequences of judicial action are so grave as the severance of natural family ties." 

Guided by this Court's precedent on an indigent's access to judicial processes in criminal and civil cases, and on proceedings to terminate parental status, we turn to the classification question this case presents: Does the Fourteenth Amendment require Mississippi to accord M. L. B. access to an appeal--available but for her inability to advance required costs--before she is forever branded unfit for affiliation with her children?... 

We observe first that the Court's decisions concerning access to judicial processes, commencing with Griffin, reflect both equal protection and due process concerns. As we said in Bearden v. Georgia (1983), in the Court's Griffin-line cases, "[d]ue process and equal protection principles converge." The equal protection concern relates to the legitimacy of fencing out would be appellants based solely on their inability to pay core costs. The due process concern homes in on the essential fairness of the state ordered proceedings anterior to adverse state action. A "precise rationale" has not been composed because cases of this order "cannot be resolved by resort to easy slogans or pigeonhole analysis." Nevertheless, "[m]ost decisions in this area," we have recognized, "res[t] on an equal protection framework," as M. L. B.'s plea heavily does, for, as we earlier observed, due process does not independently require that the State provide a right to appeal. We place this case within the framework established by our past decisions in this area. In line with those decisions, we inspect the character and intensity of the individual interest at stake, on the one hand, and the State's justification for its exaction, on the other.... 

Mississippi urges, as the justification for its appeal cost prepayment requirement, the State's legitimate interest in offsetting the costs of its court system. But in the tightly circumscribed category of parental status termination cases, appeals are few, and not likely to impose an undue burden on the State....

In accord with the substance and sense of our decisions in Lassiter and Santosky, we place decrees forever terminating parental rights in the category of cases in which the State may not "bolt the door to equal justice." 

In numerous cases, respondents point out, the Court has held that government "need not provide funds so that people can exercise even fundamental rights."  A decision for M. L. B., respondents contend, would dishonor our cases recognizing that the Constitution "generally confer[s] no affirmative right to governmental aid, even where such aid may be necessary to secure life, liberty, or property interests of which the government itself may not deprive the individual." 

Complainants in the cases on which respondents rely sought state aid to subsidize their privately initiated action or to alleviate the consequences of differences in economic circumstances that existed apart from state action. M. L. B.'s complaint is of a different order. She is endeavoring to defend against the State's destruction of her family bonds, and to resist the brand associated with a parental unfitness adjudication. Like a defendant resisting criminal conviction, she seeks to be spared from the State's devastatingly adverse action...

Respondents and the dissenters urge that we will open floodgates if we do not rigidly restrict Griffin to cases typed "criminal." But we have repeatedly noticed what sets parental status termination decrees apart from mine run civil actions, even from other domestic relations matters such as divorce, paternity, and child custody. To recapitulate, termination decrees "wor[k] a unique kind of deprivation." In contrast to matters modifiable at the parties' will or based on changed circumstances, termination adjudications involve the awesome authority of the State "to destroy permanently all legal recognition of the parental relationship." We are therefore satisfied that the label "civil" should not entice us to leave undisturbed the Mississippi courts' disposition of this case. 

* * *

For the reasons stated, we hold that Mississippi may not withhold from M. L. B. "a `record of sufficient completeness' to permit proper [appellate] consideration of [her] claims."

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