Goldberg v. Kelly

397 U.S. 254
Goldberg v. Kelly
Argued: October 13, 1969
Decided: March 23, 1970


Appellees are New York City residents receiving financial aid under the federally assisted Aid to Families with Dependent Children program or under New York State’s general Home Relief program who allege that officials administering these programs terminated, or were about to terminate, such aid without prior notice and hearing, thereby denying them due process of law. The District Court held that only a pre-termination evidentiary hearing would satisfy the constitutional command, and rejected the argument of the welfare officials that the combination of the existing post-termination “fair hearing” and informal pre-termination review was sufficient.


1. Welfare benefits are a matter of statutory entitlement for persons qualified to receive them, and procedural due process is applicable to their termination. Pp. 261-263.

2. The interest of the eligible recipient in the uninterrupted receipt of public assistance, which provides him with essential food, clothing, housing, and medical care, coupled with the State’s interest that his payments not be erroneously terminated, clearly outweighs the State’s competing concern to prevent any increase in its fiscal and administrative burdens. Pp. 264-266.

3. A pre-termination evidentiary hearing is necessary to provide the welfare recipient with procedural due process. Pp. 264, 266-271.

(a) Such hearing need not take the form of a judicial or quasi-judicial trial, but the recipient must be provided with timely and adequate notice detailing the reasons for termination, and an effective opportunity to defend by confronting adverse witnesses and by presenting his own arguments and evidence orally before the decisionmaker. Pp. 266-270. [p255]

(b) Counsel need not be furnished at the pre-termination hearing, but the recipient must be allowed to retain an attorney if he so desires. P. 270.

(c) The decisionmaker need not file a full opinion or make formal findings of fact or conclusions of law, but should state the reason for his determination and indicate the evidence he relied on. P. 271.

(d) The decisionmaker must be impartial, and, although prior involvement in some aspects of a case will not necessarily bar a welfare official from acting as decisionmaker, he should not have participated in making the determination under review. P. 271.

294 F.Supp. 893, affirmed.

Dissenting Opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK, dissenting.

In the last half century, the United States, along with many, perhaps most, other nations of the world, has moved far toward becoming a welfare state, that is, a nation that, for one reason or another, taxes its most [p272] affluent people to help support, feed, clothe, and shelter its less fortunate citizens. The result is that, today, more than nine million men, women, and children in the United States receive some kind of state or federally financed public assistance in the form of allowances or gratuities, generally paid them periodically, usually by the week, month, or quarter. [1] Since these gratuities are paid on the basis of need, the list of recipients is not static, and some people go off the lists and others are added from time to time. These ever-changing lists put a constant administrative burden on government, and it certainly could not have reasonably anticipated that this burden would include the additional procedural expense imposed by the Court today.

The dilemma of the ever-increasing poor in the midst of constantly growing affluence presses upon us, and must inevitably be met within the framework of our democratic constitutional government if our system is to survive as such. It was largely to escape just such pressing economic problems and attendant government repression that people from Europe, Asia, and other areas settled this country and formed our Nation. Many of those settlers had personally suffered from persecutions of various kinds, and wanted to get away from governments that had unrestrained powers to make life miserable for their citizens. It was for this reason, or so I believe, that, on reaching these new lands, the early settlers undertook to curb their governments by confining their powers [p273] within written boundaries, which eventually became written constitutions. [2] They wrote their basic charters, as nearly as men’s collective wisdom could do so, as to proclaim to their people and their officials an emphatic command that:

Thus, far and no farther shall you go, and where we neither delegate powers to you, nor prohibit your exercise of them, we the people are left free. [3]

Representatives of the people of the Thirteen Original Colonies spent long, hot months in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, creating a government of limited powers. They divided it into three departments — Legislative, Judicial, and Executive. The Judicial Department was to have no part whatever in making any laws. In fact, proposals looking to vesting some power in the Judiciary to take part in the legislative process and veto laws were offered, considered, and rejected by the Constitutional Convention. [4] In my [p274] judgment, there is not one word, phrase, or sentence from the beginning to the end of the Constitution from which it can be inferred that judges were granted any such legislative power. True, Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137 (1803), held, and properly, I think, that courts must be the final interpreters of the Constitution, and I recognize that the holding can provide an opportunity to slide imperceptibly into constitutional amendment and law-making. But when federal judges use this judicial power for legislative purposes, I think they wander out of their field of vested powers and transgress into the area constitutionally assigned to the Congress and the people. That is precisely what I believe the Court is doing in this case. Hence, my dissent.

The more than a million names on the relief rolls in New York, [5] and the more than nine million names on the rolls of all the 50 States were not put there at random. The names are there because state welfare officials believed that those people were eligible for assistance. Probably, in the officials’ haste to make out the lists, many names were put there erroneously in order to alleviate immediate suffering, and undoubtedly some people are drawing relief who are not entitled under the law to do so. Doubtless some draw relief checks from time to time who know they are not eligible, either because they are not actually in need or for some other reason. Many of those who thus draw undeserved gratuities are without sufficient property to enable the government to collect back from them any money they wrongfully receive. But the Court today holds that it would violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to stop paying those people weekly or monthly allowances unless the government first affords them a full “evidentiary hearing,” even [p275] though welfare officials are persuaded that the recipients are not rightfully entitled to receive a penny under the law. In other words, although some recipients might be on the lists for payment wholly because of deliberate fraud on their part, the Court holds that the government is helpless, and must continue, until after an evidentiary hearing, to pay money that it does not owe, never has owed, and never could owe. I do not believe there is any provision in our Constitution that should thus paralyze the government’s efforts to protect itself against making payments to people who are not entitled to them.

Particularly do I not think that the Fourteenth Amendment should be given such an unnecessarily broad construction. That Amendment came into being primarily to protect Negroes from discrimination, and while some of its language can and does protect others, all know that the chief purpose behind it was to protect ex-slaves. Cf. Adamson v. California, 332 U.S. 46, 71-72, and n. 5 (1947) (dissenting opinion). The Court, however, relies upon the Fourteenth Amendment, and, in effect, says that failure of the government to pay a promised charitable instalment to an individual deprives that individual of his own property in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It somewhat strains credulity to say that the government’s promise of charity to an individual is property belonging to that individual when the government denies that the individual is honestly entitled to receive such a payment.

I would have little, if any, objection to the majority’s decision in this case if it were written as the report of the House Committee on Education and Labor, but, as an opinion ostensibly resting on the language of the Constitution, I find it woefully deficient. Once the verbiage is pared away, it is obvious that this Court today adopts the views of the District Court “that to cut off a welfare recipient in the face of . . . ‘brutal need’ without a prior [p276] hearing of some sort is unconscionable,” and therefore, says the Court, unconstitutional. The majority reaches this result by a process of weighing “the recipient’s interest in avoiding” the termination of welfare benefits against “the governmental interest in summary adjudication.” Ante at 263. Today’s balancing act requires a “pre-termination evidentiary hearing,” yet there is nothing that indicates what tomorrow’s balance will be. Although the majority attempts to bolster its decision with limited quotations from prior cases, it is obvious that today’s result does not depend on the language of the Constitution itself or the principles of other decisions, but solely on the collective judgment of the majority as to what would be a fair and humane procedure in this case.

This decision is thus only another variant of the view often expressed by some members of this Court that the Due Process Clause forbids any conduct that a majority of the Court believes “unfair,” “indecent,” or “shocking to their consciences.” See, e.g., Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165, 172 (1952). Neither these words nor any like them appear anywhere in the Due Process Clause. If they did, they would leave the majority of Justices free to hold any conduct unconstitutional that they should conclude on their own to be unfair or shocking to them. [6] Had the drafters of the Due Process Clause meant to leave judges such ambulatory power to declare [p277] laws unconstitutional, the chief value of a written constitution, as the Founders saw it, would have been lost. In fact, if that view of due process is correct, the Due Process Clause could easily swallow up all other parts of the Constitution. And, truly, the Constitution would always be “what the judges say it is” at a given moment, not what the Founders wrote into the document. [7] A written constitution, designed to guarantee protection against governmental abuses, including those of judges, must have written standards that mean something definite and have an explicit content. I regret very much to be compelled to say that the Court today makes a drastic and dangerous departure from a Constitution written to control and limit the government and the judges, and moves toward a constitution designed to be no more and no less than what the judges of a particular social and economic philosophy declare, on the one hand, to be fair, or, on the other hand, to be shocking and unconscionable.

The procedure required today as a matter of constitutional law finds no precedent in our legal system. Reduced to its simplest terms, the problem in this case is similar to that frequently encountered when two parties have an ongoing legal relationship that requires one party to make periodic payments to the other. Often the situation arises where the party “owing” the money stops paying it and justifies his conduct by arguing that the recipient is not legally entitled to payment. The recipient can, of course, disagree and go to court to compel payment. But I know of no situation in our legal system in which the person alleged to owe money to [p278] another is required by law to continue making payments to a judgment-proof claimant without the benefit of any security or bond to insure that these payments can be recovered if he wins his legal argument. Yet today’s decision in no way obligates the welfare recipient to pay back any benefits wrongfully received during the pre-termination evidentiary hearings or post any bond, and, in all “fairness,” it could not do so. These recipients are, by definition, too poor to post a bond or to repay the benefits that, as the majority assumes, must be spent as received to insure survival.

The Court apparently feels that this decision will benefit the poor and needy. In my judgment, the eventual result will be just the opposite. While today’s decision requires only an administrative, evidentiary hearing, the inevitable logic of the approach taken will lead to constitutionally imposed, time-consuming delays of a full adversary process of administrative and judicial review. In the next case, the welfare recipients are bound to argue that cutting off benefits before judicial review of the agency’s decision is also a denial of due process. Since, by hypothesis, termination of aid at that point may still “deprive an eligible recipient of the very means by which to live while he waits,” ante at 264, I would be surprised if the weighing process did not compel the conclusion that termination without full judicial review would be unconscionable. After all, at each step, as the majority seems to feel, the issue is only one of weighing the government’s pocketbook against the actual survival of the recipient, and surely that balance must always tip in favor of the individual. Similarly today’s decision requires only the opportunity to have the benefit of counsel at the administrative hearing, but it is difficult to believe that the same reasoning process would not require the appointment of counsel, for otherwise the right to counsel is a meaningless one, since these [p279] people are too poor to hire their own advocates. Cf. Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 344 (1963). Thus, the end result of today’s decision may well be that the government, once it decides to give welfare benefits, cannot reverse that decision until the recipient has had the benefits of full administrative and Judicial review, including, of course, the opportunity to present his case to this Court. Since this process will usually entail a delay of several years, the inevitable result of such a constitutionally imposed burden will be that the government will not put a claimant on the rolls initially until it has made an exhaustive investigation to determine his eligibility. While this Court will perhaps have insured that no needy person will be taken off the rolls without a full “due process” proceeding, it will also have insured that many will never get on the rolls, or at least that they will remain destitute during the lengthy proceedings followed to determine initial eligibility.

For the foregoing reasons, I dissent from the Court’s holding. The operation of a welfare state is a new experiment for our Nation. For this reason, among others, I feel that new experiments in carrying out a welfare program should not be frozen into our constitutional structure. They should be left, as are other legislative determinations, to the Congress and the legislatures that the people elect to make our laws.


^ . This figure includes all recipients of Old-age Assistance, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Aid to the Blind, Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled, and general assistance. In this case, appellants are AFDC and general assistance recipients. In New York State alone, there are 951,000 AFDC recipients and 108,000 on general assistance. In the Nation as a whole, the comparable figures are 6,080,000 and 391,000. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1969 (90th ed.), Table 435, p. 27.

^ . The goal of a written constitution with fixed limits on governmental power had long been desired. Prior to our colonial constitutions, the closest man had come to realizing this goal was the political movement of the Levellers in England in the 1640’s. J. Frank, The Levellers (1955). In 1647, the Levellers proposed the adoption of An Agreement of the People which set forth written limitations on the English Government. This proposal contained many of the ideas which later were incorporated in the constitutions of this Nation. Id. at 135-147.

^ . This command is expressed in the Tenth Amendment:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

^ . It was proposed that members of the judicial branch would sit on a Council of Revision which would consider legislation and have the power to veto it. This proposal was rejected. J. Elliot, 1 Elliot‘s Debates 160, 164, 214 (Journal of the Federal Convention); 395, 39 (Yates’ Minutes); vol. 5, pp.151, 164 166, 344-349 (Madison’s notes) (Lippincott ed. 1876). It was also suggested that The Chief Justice would serve as a member of the President’s executive council, but this proposal was similarly rejected. Id., vol. 5, pp. 442, 445, 446, 462.

^ . See n. 1, supra.

^ . I am aware that some feel that the process employed in reaching today’s decision is not dependent on the individual views of the Justices involved, but is a mere objective search for the “collective conscience of mankind;” but, in my view, that description is only a euphemism for an individual’s judgment. Judges are as human as anyone, and as likely as others to see the world through their own eyes and find the “collective conscience” remarkably similar to their own. Cf. Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 518-519 (1965) (BLACK, J., dissenting); Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp., 395 U.S. 337, 350-351 (1969) (BLACK, J., dissenting).

^ . To realize how uncertain a standard of “fundamental fairness” would be, one has only to reflect for a moment on the possible disagreement if the “fairness” of the procedure in this case were propounded to the head of the National Welfare Rights Organization, the president of the national Chamber of Commerce, and the chairman of the John Birch Society.

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