Jones v. Helms

LOCATION: Highway 80 and Nelson Road

DOCKET NO.: 80-850
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 452 US 412 (1981)
ARGUED: Apr 28, 1981
DECIDED: Jun 15, 1981

Carol Atha Cosgrove - on behalf of the Appellant
James C. Bonner, Jr. - on behalf of the Appellee

Facts of the case


Media for Jones v. Helms

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 28, 1981 in Jones v. Helms

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments next Jones v. Helms.

Ms. Cosgrove, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Carol Atha Cosgrove:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case comes to the Court today on appeal from the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

The question presented is whether, under the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution, a state in furtherance of its interests in protecting its children and enforcing its criminal law may enact a statute which provides that a person who commits the crime of child abandonment and leaves the state is guilty of a felony, whereas a person who commits the crime of child abandonment without leaving the state is guilty of a misdemeanor.

Appellee's challenge--

Warren E. Burger:

Does it make any difference under this statute whether the particular person left the state three hours after the commission of the act or three years?

Carol Atha Cosgrove:

--No, sir, there is no time element specified on the face of the statute.

Appellee's challenge and the court of appeals decision is predicated on the ground that the statute distinguishes between two classes of abandoning parents, based upon the exercise of their constitutional right to travel, and that therefore the statute is void under the Equal Protection Clause.

Appellee is a father who was ordered by a Georgia court to make child support payments but who never did, who simply went to Alabama.

He testified that he did not go to Alabama for the purpose of avoiding his child support obligations but rather to attend school.

When he returned to Georgia to visit his child he was arrested on the warrant for the felony of abandoning his child and leaving the state, and received a three year sentence suspended on condition that he make child support payments, which he never did.

Instead he just left the state again.

He eventually became a resident of Florida.

Upon his wife's death he regained custody of his child, but he had some problems with the Florida authorities and moved back to Augusta, Georgia, where the child had to be placed in the Department of Family and Children Services custody, basically a welfare agency.

And thereafter, the appellee was arrested on an outstanding bench warrant and sentenced to serve three years.

After having exhausted his state remedies, the appellee filed a petition for habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia alleging that the statute violated his constitutional right to travel and was void under both the Equal Protection and the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Constitution.

The district court ruled against the appellee but upon appeal to the 5th Circuit the district court's order was reversed and judgment entered for appellee.

William H. Rehnquist:

Ms. Cosgrove, I have some difficulty interpreting the 5th Circuit's opinion, perhaps because of its shortness.

It seems to rely at some length on the Morissette case from this Court, which was simply as I had understood it a handbook of how this Court would interpret federal statutes with respect to intent and was not a constitutional doctrine at all.

What would you say was the rationale of the 5th Circuit, if there is one?

Carol Atha Cosgrove:

Your Honor, I believe the 5th Circuit saw our statute as not having the requisite specific intent which would make it pass muster.

William H. Rehnquist:

But why would it have to have requisite... why does it have to have any specific intent?

Carol Atha Cosgrove:

It was the 5th Circuit's opinion that without the specific intent the statute would be overly broad.

It's our contention, of course, that it is not necessary to have a specific intent for that element of the crime.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, unless you're talking about free speech you don't have an overbreadth challenge here, do you?

Carol Atha Cosgrove:

That's correct.

I believe only in the First Amendment area has there been a chilling and an overbreadth problem addressed by this Court.

The court of appeals reasoned that inasmuch as the appellee did have a fundamental right to travel, that the statute was the subject of strict scrutiny; and secondly, since Georgia has no compelling state interest involved, that the statute would be violative of equal protection.

The court of appeals also reasoned that the statute was overly broad in that we had the Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act, URESA, which was available to vindicate any of Georgia's interests.