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Law School Case Brief

Santosky v. Kramer - 455 U.S. 745, 102 S. Ct. 1388 (1982)


The fundamental liberty interest of natural parents in the care, custody, and management of their child does not evaporate simply because they have not been model parents or have lost temporary custody of their child to the State. Even when blood relationships are strained, parents retain a vital interest in preventing the irretrievable destruction of their family life. If anything, persons faced with forced dissolution of their parental rights have a more critical need for procedural protections than do those resisting state intervention into ongoing family affairs. When the State moves to destroy weakened familial bonds, it must provide the parents with fundamentally fair procedures. 


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 the Santoskys’ rights as natural parents in their three children. Rejecting the Santoskys' 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 the Santoskys’ appeal to that court. The Santoskys sought further review in the federal court.


Was the standard of “fair preponderance of evidence” enough to severe the rights of natural parents to their children?




The United States Supreme Court held that before a state could sever completely and irrevocably the rights of parents in their natural child, Due Process under U.S. Const. Amend. XIV required that the state support its allegations by at least clear and convincing evidence. The Court found that the "fair preponderance of the evidence" standard was inconsistent with Due Process because the private interest in parental rights affected was substantial and the countervailing governmental interest favoring the preponderance standard was comparatively slight. The Court held that a clear and convincing evidence standard adequately conveyed to the factfinder the level of subjective certainty about the factual conclusions necessary to satisfy due process, and that determination of the precise burden equal to or greater than that standard was a matter of state law properly left to state legislatures and state courts.

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