SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
455 U.S. 745
Santosky v. Kramer
CERTIORARI TO THE APPELLATE DIVISION, SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, THIRD JUDICIAL DEPARTMENT
No. 80-5889 Argued: November 10, 1981 — Decided: March 24, 1982
Under New York law, the State may terminate, over parental objection, the rights of parents in their natural child upon a finding that the child is “permanently neglected.” The New York Family Court Act (§ 622) requires that only a “fair preponderance of the evidence” support that finding. Neglect proceedings were brought in Family Court to terminate petitioners’ rights as natural parents in their three children. Rejecting petitioners’ challenge to the constitutionality of § 622’s “fair preponderance of the evidence” standard, the Family Court weighed the evidence under that standard and found permanent neglect. After a subsequent dispositional hearing, the Family Court ruled that the best interests of the children required permanent termination of petitioners’ custody. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court affirmed, and the New York Court of Appeals dismissed petitioners’ appeal to that court.
1. Process is constitutionally due a natural parent at a state-initiated parental rights termination proceeding. Pp. 752-757.
(a) The fundamental liberty interest of natural parents in the care custody, and management of their child is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, and does not evaporate simply because they have not been model parents or have lost temporary custody of their child to the State. A parental rights termination proceeding interferes with that fundamental liberty interest. When the State moves to destroy weakened familial bonds, it must provide the parents with fundamentally fair procedures. Pp. 752-754.
(b) The nature of the process due in parental rights termination proceedings turns on a balancing of three factors: the private interests affected by the proceedings; the risk of error created by the State’s chosen procedure; and the countervailing governmental interest supporting use of the challenged procedure. Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 335. In any given proceeding, the minimum standard of proof tolerated by the due process requirement reflects not only the weight of the public and [p746] private interests affected, but also a societal judgment about how the risk of error should be distributed between the litigants. The minimum standard is a question of federal law which this Court may resolve. Retrospective case-by-case review cannot preserve fundamental fairness when a class of proceedings is governed by a constitutionally defective evidentiary standard. Pp. 754-757.
2. The “fair preponderance of the evidence” standard prescribed by § 622 violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 758-768.
(a) The balance of private interests affected weighs heavily against use of such a standard in parental rights termination proceedings, since the private interest affected is commanding, and the threatened loss is permanent. Once affirmed on appeal, a New York decision terminating parental rights is final and irrevocable. Pp. 758-761.
(b) A preponderance standard does not fairly allocate the risk of an erroneous factfinding between the State and the natural parents. In parental rights termination proceedings, which bear many of the indicia of a criminal trial, numerous factors combine to magnify the risk of erroneous factfinding. Coupled with the preponderance standard, these factors create a significant prospect of erroneous termination of parental rights. A standard of proof that allocates the risk of error nearly equally between an erroneous failure to terminate, which leaves the child in an uneasy status quo, and an erroneous termination, which unnecessarily destroys the natural family, does not reflect properly the relative severity of these two outcomes. Pp. 761-766.
(c) A standard of proof more strict than preponderance of the evidence is consistent with the two state interests at stake in parental rights termination proceedings — a parens patriae interest in preserving and promoting the child’s welfare and a fiscal and administrative interest in reducing the cost and burden of such proceedings. Pp. 766-768.
3. Before a 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. A “clear and convincing evidence” standard adequately conveys to the factfinder the level of subjective certainty about his factual conclusions necessary to satisfy due process. 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. Pp. 768-770.
75 App.Div.2d 910, 427 N.Y.S.2d 319, vacated and remanded.
BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, J., filed a [p747] dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE and O’CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 770.