Law School Case Brief
Sojourner A. v. N.J. Dep't of Human Servs. - 177 N.J. 318, 828 A.2d 306 (2003)
For the evaluation of equal protection and due process claims, New Jersey courts consider the nature of the affected right, the extent to which the governmental restriction intrudes upon it, and the public need for the restriction. By deviating from the federal tiered model, New Jersey courts are able to examine each claim on a continuum that reflects the nature of the burdened right and the importance of the governmental restriction. However, although the New Jersey mode of analysis differs in form from the federal tiered approach, the tests weigh the same factors and often produce the same result.
In 1987, shortly after giving birth to her first child, plaintiff Angela B. began receiving family Medicaid benefits in addition to a monthly allowance in the form of food stamps and cash assistance. Subsequently, in 1988, 1989, and 1995 Angela B. gave birth to three more children. She received an increase in combined welfare benefits for the two children born in 1988 and 1989, but due to the enactment of New Jersey's first family cap provision in the interim, she was unable to obtain additional cash assistance when her fourth child was born. Similarly, after plaintiff Sojourner A. gave birth to her first child in 1994, she began receiving Medicaid family coverage as well as monthly assistance in food stamps and cash payments. When she became pregnant with her second child in 1996, the state notified her that she was not eligible for an increase in cash assistance as her child would be born more than ten months after she had started receiving welfare benefits. When Sojourner A. became pregnant again in 1997 and 1998, she terminated the pregnancies in part because of financial difficulties. In 1997, plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit against the New Jersey Department of Human Services (DHS), claiming that the statute violated New Jersey's Constitution. Plaintiffs contended that the statute was designed impermissibly to coerce the procreative and child-bearing decisions of plaintiffs by penalizing them for exercising their fundamental right to bear children. Plaintiffs also contended that the family cap violated the equal protection rights of certain classes of poor children based on their parents' reproductive choices and the timing of their birth. Both plaintiffs stated in depositions that the lack of additional cash assistance imposed an extreme financial hardship on their families. Plaintiffs and DHS filed motions for summary judgment. On December 18, 2000, the trial court granted DHS' motion and dismissed plaintiffs' complaint with prejudice, finding in part that plaintiffs had failed to submit any evidence that the family cap materially affected a woman's right to make procreative choices. The appellate division affirmed the trial court's decision on April 2, 2002.
Did the family cap provision of the Work First New Jersey Act violate the equal protection and due process guarantees?
The state supreme court held that the family cap provision of the Work First New Jersey Act did not violate the equal protection and due process guarantees of the New Jersey Constitution. The court noted that the challenged statute did not infringe on a woman's right to make procreative decisions by penalizing her for choosing to bear a child. According to the court, the cap did not improperly single out classes of poor children based on their parents' reproductive choices and the timing of their birth. The court also noted that DHS provided ample justification for the family cap. As such, the court affirmed the judgment of the trial court.
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