M. L. B. v. S. L. J.

PETITIONER: M. L. B.
RESPONDENT: S. L. J.
LOCATION: New York Board of Education Headquarters

DOCKET NO.: 95-853
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Mississippi

CITATION: 519 US 102 (1996)
ARGUED: Oct 07, 1996
DECIDED: Dec 16, 1996

ADVOCATES:
Robert B. McDuff - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Rickey T. Moore - Argued the cause for the respondents

Facts of the case

In 1994, a Mississippi Chancery Court terminated M.L.B.'s parental rights to her two minor 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. Because she lacked the funds, M.L.B. sought leave to appeal in forma 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. In front of the U.S. Supreme Court, M.L.B. argued 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.

Question

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?

Media for M. L. B. v. S. L. J.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 07, 1996 in M. L. B. v. S. L. J.

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - December 16, 1996 in M. L. B. v. S. L. J.

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 95-853, M.L.B. versus S.L.J. will be announced by Justice Ginsburg.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

This case concerns a poor person’s opportunity to challenge on appeal a court decree ending her status as a parent.

The petitioner, M.L.B. had two children, a boy born in 1985, a girl in 1987.

In 1994, on the application of M.L.B.’s former husband and his second wife, a Chancery Court in Mississippi decreed M.L.B., an unfit parent, terminated her parental rights, and approved adoption of the children by their stepmother.

The trial judge declared that the statutory requirements for parental status termination had been met but he did not specify concretely the evidence, facts, or precise reasons for his decision.

M.L.B. sought to appeal and paid the $100 filing fee but under Mississippi laws, she could not perfect her appeal without paying at once an amount exceeding $2300 for preparation of the record.

The law, just part of that cost was for a transcript of the Chancery Court proceedings.

The Supreme Court of Mississippi denied M.L.B.’s request for permission to appeal without pre payment of cost.

Mississippi Courts granted such applications only for appeals from two categories of judgments, criminal convictions and involuntary civil commitment orders.

M.L.B. tenders this question, may a state, consistent with the Eue Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, render appellate review of parental termination decrees accessible only to parents who have the ware withhold to pay for a transcript plus other record preparation fees.

We reverse the judgment of the Mississippi Supreme Court and hold that Mississippi may not deny M.L.B. because of her poverty, her inability to pay for a transcript, access to appellate review to test the adequacy of the evidence on which she was judged unfit to remain a parent.

Our opinion surveys the court’s prior decisions and points.

We take up first appeals from criminal convictions including convictions for petty offenses, penalized by fine but not incarceration.

In all cases typed criminal or quasi-criminal in nature, our prior decisions hold that a state may not bolt the door to a poor person's appeal by withholding the record necessary for appellate review.

On the other hand, we next point out, in most civil cases, our prior rulings established that the state need not permit poor persons to appeal free of charge.

Today’s decision also reviews our case law recognizing that no ties are more precious than those binding parent and child, and that few decrees, also grave in their consequences as a court order permanently severing the parent-child bond.

Parental termination decrees, our prior decision acknowledged work a unique kind of deprivation unlike custody decrees, they totally destroy all legal recognition of a parent-child relationship.

We therefore distinguish M.L.B.’s case from the mind run of civil actions including other domestic relations matters and align it for appeal access purposes with criminal and petty offense cases.

The accusatory state action M.L.B. seeks defend off, we explain, should not be obscured by the label civil action where parental unfitness judications are barely distinguishable from criminal condemnation in view of the magnitude and permanence of the laws at state.

Justice Kennedy has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment; Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Scalia; the Chief Justice has filed a dissenting opinion joining all but part two of Justice Thomas’ dissenting opinion.