Lassiter v. Department of Social Services

PETITIONER: Abby Gail Lassiter
RESPONDENT: Department of Social Services of Durham County, North Carolina
LOCATION: North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women

DOCKET NO.: 79-6423
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: North Carolina Supreme Court

CITATION: 452 US 18 (1981)
ARGUED: Feb 23, 1981
DECIDED: Jun 01, 1981
GRANTED: Oct 06, 1980

Leowen Evans - on behalf of the Petitioner pro hac vice
Steven Mansfield Shaber - on behalf of North Carolina as amicus curiae
Thomas Russell Odom - on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case

On September 26, 1974, William L. Lassiter was born out of wedlock. On May 23, 1975, the state determined that William L. Lassiter was a neglected child in need of protection, and placed him in the custody of the Durham County Department of Social Services. The state then placed William in foster care.

Abby Gail Lassiter, William’s mother, was convicted of second-degree murder in July of 1976, and began serving her twenty-five to forty year sentence at the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women. In 1978, the Department petitioned the court to terminate Abby’s parental rights. It alleged that Abby had not contacted William since December 1975, and that she willfully left William in foster care. On August 31, 1978, the state brought Abby from prison to the hearing, which opened with a discussion of whether Abby should have more time to find legal assistance. The court concluded that she had ample opportunity to obtain counsel; Abby did not claim to be indigent, and the court did not appoint counsel for her.

A social worker from the Department testified about Abby’s lack of contact with William, Abby’s mother’s unfitness to care for William, and William’s condition. Abby cross-examined the social worker, but many of her questions were disallowed because they were arguments. She also testified on her own behalf and later cross-examined her mother, who denied saying she could not care for William, contradicting the Department’s allegation. The court held that Abby willfully failed to maintain concern or responsibility for William’s welfare, and terminated Abby’s status as William’s parent. On appeal, the North Carolina Court of Appeals determined that North Carolina was not constitutionally mandated to provide Abby counsel during the hearing. The Supreme Court of North Carolina denied her application for discretionary review.


Did the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment require North Carolina to provide Abby Gail Lassiter with counsel in a proceeding to permanently and irrevocably terminate her parental rights?

Media for Lassiter v. Department of Social Services

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 23, 1981 in Lassiter v. Department of Social Services

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments next in Lassiter v. the Department of Social Services.

Mr. Evans.

Leowen Evans:

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

The issue before the Court today is whether appointed counsel is a process that is due indigent parents when the state initiates actions to terminate their parental rights.

The State of North Carolina terminated the parental rights of Abby Gail Lassiter, an indigent imprisoned mother, without affording her the assistance of appointed counsel.

This contested proceeding was initiated and prosecuted by the State through its authorized official, the Durham County Department of Social Services, the respondent before this honorable court.

The respondent was represented by staff attorneys, and by a social worker.

In rendering its decision to terminate parental rights, the trial court expressly stated that it relied upon the testimony before the court and the record before the court.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed this decision, holding that the right to family integrity is a constitutionally protected right, that the State has invaded this constitutionally protected right, but that this invasion was not so serious or unreasonable as to compel the Court to hold that appointed counsel was a process that was constitutionally due the poor.

To the contrary, Mr. Justices, appointed counsel is a process that must be due if indigent parents are to be afforded an adequate opportunity to be heard in termination proceedings.

There is a per se need for appointed counsel because of the inherent risk that exists otherwise.

William H. Rehnquist:

Has this Court ever gone, counsel, ever gone beyond the criminal proceedings in requiring states to appoint counsel in particular proceedings?

Leowen Evans:

No, Mr. Justice, not a purely civil proceeding.

This Court hasn't gone beyond... hasn't appointed counsel in a purely civil proceeding.

This Court has held that in a noncriminal proceeding, such as Gagnon, that the right to appointed counsel may exist.

In re Gault is another one, isn't it?

Leowen Evans:


Potter Stewart:

Gault, the Gault case?

Leowen Evans:

Yes, yes, Your Honor, in Gault.

Potter Stewart:

And the State, at least, denominated that a noncriminal proceeding.

Leowen Evans:

Yes, Mr. Justice.

And I... a plurality of the Court recognized in Vitek v. Jones the need for appointed counsel.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Has the Court required appointed counsel in federal habeas corpus proceedings as a constitutional requirement?

Leowen Evans:

I do not know, Mr. Justice.

Potter Stewart:


The answer is, no.

Leowen Evans:

All parties involved have a compelling reason to prevent erroneous terminations.

Warren E. Burger:

Before we leave that, Mr. Evans, is it not inherent in the rationale of the Gault and the other cases that because the juvenile proceeding was so nearly a criminal proceeding, that the criminal safeguards in various respects had to be incorporated?

Isn't that the rationale?

Leowen Evans:

I think, Mr. Justice, that was the rationale for Gault.