Supreme Court Grants Mississippi Mother Right to Appeal Loss of Children

December 16, 1996 12:00 am

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Monday, December 16, 1996

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court today ruled in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union that Mississippi may not deny a mother the opportunity to appeal the termination of her parental rights solely because she could not afford to pay $2,352.36 in court fees.

In a 6-to-3 opinion delivered by Justice Ruth Ginsburg, the high court ruled that Mississippi violated the mother’s Fourteenth Amendment due process and equal protection rights, describing the permanent loss of parental rights as “an interest far more precious than any property right.”

“When such fundamental rights are at stake, the assets in a mother’s bank account should not determine her access to the judicial system,” said Robert McDuff, an attorney from Jackson, Miss., who argued the case before the Court in cooperation with the ACLU.

Steven R. Shapiro, the ACLU’s national legal director, said: “There are few interests in civil litigation more important than those implicated in parental termination cases. The Constitution requires that a poor mother has as much right to defend her parental rights as a rich one.”

The plaintiff in the case, Melissa Lumpkin Brooks (known in court papers as “M.L.B.”), took her case to the nation’s high court to overturn a state supreme court ruling which had refused to waive the administrative court fee that prevented her from appealing the loss of her two children.

Today’s decision arose out of a custody dispute that began in 1993 when Brooks’ former husband, “S.L.J.,” filed a termination lawsuit so that his new wife could adopt the two children. The lawsuit charged that Brooks did not visit her children frequently and was behind on child support payments, two claims which Brooks contests.

Although no charges of abuse or mistreatment were made, a state judge nonetheless granted S.L.J.’s request and severed all parental rights between Brooks and her two children, who were then aged seven and nine. Brooks attempted to appeal the ruling, but was told that state law required her to pay the cost of transferring 1169 pages of court transcripts and other papers, which at $2.00 per page, totaled more than two thousand dollars. (The case is M.L.B. v. S.L.J. (No. 95-853).

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