United States Dept. of Agriculture v. Murry

PETITIONER: United States Dept. of Agriculture
RESPONDENT: Murry
LOCATION: New York City Human Resources Administration

DOCKET NO.: 72-848
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1972-1975)
LOWER COURT:

CITATION: 413 US 508 (1973)
ARGUED: Apr 23, 1973
DECIDED: Jun 25, 1973

ADVOCATES:
Keith A. Jones - for appellants
Ronald F. Pollack - for appellees

Facts of the case

Question

Media for United States Dept. of Agriculture v. Murry

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 23, 1973 in United States Dept. of Agriculture v. Murry

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments next in 72-848, United States against Murry.

Mr. Jones.

Keith A. Jones:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

In this case like the one which is just been argued, the Government is appealing from a judgment of the District Court for the District of Columbia, enjoining enforcement of a provision of the Food Stamp Act on constitutional grounds.

Provision in question is another 1971 Amendment to the Act, this one is commonly referred to as the tax dependent amendment.

Generally speaking, the amendment provides the household of the young adult was claimed by his parents as a tax dependent is not eligible to participate in the food stamp program if his parents themselves do not qualify for food stamp assistance.

Now I might add at this point that in order to take a child as a dependent for tax purposes, the parent must provide over one half of the child support.

The eight individual appellees here brought this suit as a class action alleging that they had been excluded from participation in the food stamp program solely by virtue of the operation of the tax dependent amendment.

Appellees raise no question of statutory interpretation in this case and they did not contest the applicability of the statute to their individual cases.

They sought declaratory and injunctive relief solely on constitutional grounds.

The three-judge court held the provision unconstitutional, without closely analyzing the language of the statute.

The Court assumed that it necessarily acted to deny food stamps on the valid of -- on the basis of invalid taxpayer dependency claims.

Court considered this result to be so grossly unfair, in the Court’s terms, as to constitute both the denial of due process and of equal protection.

Court therefore enjoined further enforcement in implementation of the tax dependent amendment.

As we have discussed at some length in our reply brief, this case presents a threshold question whether adjudication of appellees’ constitutional claims as appropriated at this time.

It now appears that each named appellee may have been denied food stamps solely as a consequence of errors in the administrative interpretation of the tax dependent amendment.

We have set forth our analysis of the statutory issues in our reply brief and I will not discuss them at length here, but stated very briefly five of the appellees in this case were denied food stamp assistance on the basis solely of invalid tax payer dependency claims.

Harry A. Blackmun:

Mr. Keith is there an administrative remedy provided for any improper income tax dependency claim?

Keith A. Jones:

No there isn’t and it has been the administrative interpretation of this Act that it does deny food stamps, if the claim of an injunction is made and there's no inquiry into it whether it is valid or invalid.

That has been the administrative interpretation.

As we point out in our reply briefs, the statute certainly made but it doesn’t have to be interpreted in that way.

The other three appellees in this --

Harry A. Blackmun:

That would be then, the applicants are helpless aren't they in the face of a -- an invalidly asserted dependency claim?

Keith A. Jones:

If the statute is construed as denying food stamps on the basis of an invalid claim, then there is no way for the applicant to establish that their claims is in fact -- that that the tax payer claim was in fact invalid and if they should receive food stamps, that is correct.

The statutory language talks merely in terms of “is claimed” and whether that imports a requirement of validity is an open question I would think at this time --

Harry A. Blackmun:

Well, does that concern you at all?

Keith A. Jones:

Well it concerns me in the sense that we have pointed out to the Court that this Court has frequently interpreted statutes so as to avoid constitutional questions.

If it were the opinion of Court that the statute would be invalid as so construed as denying food stamps on the basis of invalid claims then it would be appropriate for the Court to interpret it as not denying food stamps in such a case.

And I think that such an interpretation would generally accord with the statutory language, and would not do a violence.

On the other hand, we have argued that even if it is construed as denying food stamps on the basis of invalid claims, the statute is nevertheless constitutional and that we would advance two reasons for this.