Goldberg v. Kelly: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Public Assistance and the Due Process Clause

A view from the Supreme Court

Dan Thornberg / Getty Images

Goldberg v. Kelly (1970) asked the Supreme Court to determine whether the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies to welfare recipients who are about to lose their benefits. The landmark case hinged on whether or not public assistance could be considered “property” and whether the interests of the state or the individual took precedence.

Fast Facts: Goldberg v. Kelly

  • Case Argued: October 13, 1969
  • Decision Issued: March 23, 1970
  • Petitioner: Jack R. Goldberg, Commissioner of Social Services of the City of New York
  • Respondent: John Kelly, on behalf of NY residents receiving financial assistance
  • Key Questions: Can state and city officials terminate welfare benefits without providing recipients with an evidentiary hearing? Are welfare recipients protected under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?
  • Majority: Justices Douglas, Harlan, Brennan, White, Marshall
  • Dissenting: Justices Burger, Black, Stewart 
  • Ruling: Procedural due process applies to welfare recipients at risk of losing their benefits. Welfare is a statutory entitlement and can be considered property. State officials must conduct an evidentiary hearing prior to ending someone's benefits.

Facts of the Case

New York State terminated the benefits of New York City residents receiving assistance from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program and New York State's home relief program. John Kelly, who had been stripped of his benefits without notice, acted as the lead plaintiff on behalf of about 20 New York City residents. At the time, there was no procedure in place for notifying welfare recipients in advance that their benefits would be stopped. Shortly after Kelly filed suit, city and state officials adopted policies for notifying an individual about the loss of benefits pre-termination and included a hearing option post-termination.

Under the new policies, state and city officials were required to:

  • Give notice seven days before terminating benefits.
  • Notify the residents that they may request a review of the decision within seven days.
  • Task a reviewing official with “expeditiously” deciding whether or not to suspend or discontinue aid.
  • Prevent aid from being discontinued prior to entering a finding.
  • Explain that a former recipient may prepare a written letter for a higher official to take into consideration while reviewing the decision to terminate benefits.
  • Offer the former-recipient a “fair hearing” post-termination in which the former recipient may give oral testimony and present evidence before an independent state hearing officer.

Kelly and the residents alleged that the policies were not enough to satisfy due process.

The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York found in favor of the residents. Cutting off a welfare recipient in desperate need of public assistance without a prior hearing would be "unconscionable," the District Court found. The state appealed the decision and the Supreme Court took on the case to settle the dispute.

Constitutional Issues

The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment reads, “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

Can public assistance be considered “property?” Can a state terminate public assistance without an evidentiary hearing? 

Arguments

The residents focused on the pre-termination procedure, arguing that it violated the due process clause by not allowing them to advocate on their own behalf. Public assistance was more than a "privilege" and suddenly terminating it, with or without notice, could jeopardize their ability to provide for themselves and their families.

Attorneys on behalf of city and state officials argued that providing due process hearings pre-termination would create too great a burden on the state. Stopping benefits was a matter of cutting costs. A hearing could be triggered post-termination, to allow former recipients to advocate for the reinstatement of benefits.

Majority Opinion

Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. delivered the 5-3 decision. The majority found that public assistance is closer to property than a privilege and therefore covered under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Brennan, on behalf of the majority, weighed the state interest of cutting costs against the recipient’s interest in receiving a fair hearing. The recipients' interest carried more weight, the Court found, because public assistance beneficiaries could undergo significant harm when losing aid.

Justice Brennan wrote:

“For qualified recipients, welfare provides the means to obtain essential food, clothing, housing, and medical care. Thus, the crucial factor in this context ... is that termination of aid pending resolution of a controversy over eligibility may deprive an eligible recipient of the very means by which to live while he waits.”

Justice Brennan emphasized the importance of providing someone with the “opportunity to be heard.” The process offered by New York State officials prior to terminating benefits did not offer the recipient the chance to speak to an administrator, cross-examine witnesses, or present evidence on their behalf. These three elements were essential to ensuring due process in pre-termination proceedings, Justice Brennan wrote.

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Hugo Black dissented. The majority had stretched the Fourteenth Amendment too far in granting procedural due process to welfare recipients pre-termination, he argued. Decisions about state and federal programs like the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program should be left to the legislators. Justice Brennan's reasoning was suitable for a report from the House Committee on Education and Labor but "woefully insufficient" as a legal opinion from the Supreme Court, Justice Black wrote. The Court's findings amounted to a decision about what would be "fair and humane procedure" for terminating benefits, rather than an exercise in applying the text of the Constitution or past decisions.

Impact

Goldberg v. Kelly was the start of an era of procedural due process rulings from the Supreme Court. At Justice Brennan's retirement, he reflected on Goldberg v. Kelly as the most important ruling of his career. It was the first Supreme Court ruling to broaden the concept of procedural due process and impacted millions of people by revolutionizing the system for terminating public assistance. It also provided the Court with a basis for future opinions weighing government interests against the interests of an individual.

Sources

  • Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254 (1970).
  • Greenhouse, Linda. “New Look at an 'Obscure' Ruling, 20 Years Later.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 11 May 1990, www.nytimes.com/1990/05/11/us/law-new-look-at-an-obscure-ruling-20-years-later.html.