Santosky v. Kramer

LOCATION:Residence of Fitzgerald

DOCKET NO.: 80-5889
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court

CITATION: 455 US 745 (1982)
ARGUED: Nov 10, 1981
DECIDED: Mar 24, 1982

Martin Guggenheim – on behalf of the Petitioners
Stephen Scavuzzo – on behalf of the Respondents

Facts of the case


Media for Santosky v. Kramer

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 10, 1981 in Santosky v. Kramer

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – March 24, 1982 in Santosky v. Kramer

Harry A. Blackmun:

The second case is No. 80-5889, Santosky against Kramer.

This case comes to us by way of certiorari to the Appellate Division of Supreme Court of New York, the Third Judicial Department.

Under New York law, the state may terminate, over parental objection, the rights of parents in their child upon a finding that the child is permanently neglected.

The state statute requires that only a fair preponderance of the evidence support that finding. Neglect proceedings were brought in Family Court to terminate the rights of the petitioners in their three children.

They challenged the constitutionality of the preponderance of the evidence standard but the Court weighed the evidence under that standard and found permanent neglect, and after a subsequent dispositional hearing, the Court ruled that the best interests of the children required termination of the petitioners’ custody and the Appellate Division affirmed.

In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we hold that process is constitutionally due a natural parent at a state-initiated parental rights termination proceeding.

The fundamental liberty interest of the parents in the care, and custody of their child is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

When the State moves to destroy familial bonds, it must provide the parents with a fundamentally fair procedure.

In any proceeding, the minimum standard of proof tolerated, by the due process requirement reflects not only the weight of the public and private interest affected, but also a societal judgment about how the risk of error should be distributed between the litigants.

We hold that the fair preponderance of the evidence standard prescribed by the New York standard violates the Due Process Clause.

The private interest affected is commanding and the threatened loss is permanent.

A preponderance standard does not fairly allocate the risk of erroneous fact finding between the State on the one hand and the parents on the other.

And thus, before, State may sever completely and irrevocably the rights of parents in their natural child, due process requires that the State support its allegations by at least clear and convincing evidence.

Determination of the precise burden equal to or greater than that standard is a matter of state law properly left to state legislatures and state courts.

We therefore vacate the judgment of the Appellate Division and remand the case for further proceedings.

I’m authorized to say that Justice Rehnquist has filed a dissenting opinion and is joined therein by the Chief Justice, by Justice White and by Justice O’Connor.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you Justice Blackmun.