THE SUPREME COURT, which has been artfully tuning itself to the times of late by strumming melodious chords about the integrity of the family, made an exception this week in the case of poor families, ruling that local courts can forever sever the relationship of parents to a child without providing the parents with a lawyer.
The case that come to the court involved an indigent woman from Durham, N.C., Abby Gail Lassiter, who is serving a 25-to-40-year jail term for second degree murder. She will be eligible for parole next year. In 1975, a year before her conviction, her infant son had been placed in the custody of a social services agency because of alleged neglect. In 1978, a local court found that Lassiter had "willfully failed to maintain concern or responsibility for the welfare of the minor," and ended her relationship with her child. The Supreme Court, in a decision written by Justice Potter Stewart, ruled that indigents did not have a constitutional right to a lawyer in such cases and that it was up to trail courts to decide on a case-by-case basis whether a parent needed legal council in order to get a fair hearing.
That Lassiter never had much of a chance is clear from the dissent written by Justice Harry Blackmun, who shows just what a lawyer could have done in Lassiter's defense by challenging hearsay evidence and weak testimony from a social worker. Although Lassiter was given an opportunity to cross-examine the county social worker, she did not know that cross-examination was interrogatory and clearly irritated the judge by a series of declarative statements.
Lassiter's four older childen were being cared for by her mother and she wanted her son to be raised with them. The social worker testified that in the opinion of other members of the community the grandmother could not care for a fifth child. The grandmother disputed that and disputed the social worker's claim that she had complained about her daughter's neglect of her child. Lassiter never introduced evidence about how well her other children were doing, which would have helped her case significantly. Nor was there any justification given for taking this child and not the others.
Lassiter was not a model parent and the outcome of the case might have been the same even with a lawyer, Blackmun wrote. "But the issue before the Court is not petitioner's character; it is whether she was given a meaningful opportunity to be heard when the State moved to terminate absolutely her parental rights. . . . I find virtually incredible the Court's conclusion today that her termination proceeding was fundamentally fair. To reach that conclusion, the Court simply ignores the defendant's obvious inability to speak effectively for herself, a factor the Court has found to be highly significant in past cases."
Terminating a parent's rights to a child, in the words of Blackmun, "leaves the parent with no right to visit or communicate with the child, to participate in, or even to know shoot, any important decision affecting the child's religious, educational, emotional, or physical development. It is hardly surprising that this forced dissolution of the parent-child relationship has been recognized as a punitive sanction by the courts. . . . Surely there can be few losses more grievous than the abrogation of parental rights."
If there can be few losses more grievous, there can be few judicial procedures more subjective than one that examines the fitness of a parent and the welfare of a child.The American Bar Association, noting that the majority of the states do provide counsel for the parents and noting that such cases represent a small fraction of the criminal docket and that we are not, therefore, talking about some expensive largess, argued that parents need lawyers because the proceedings are prone to error, that there is a lack of uniform judicial criteria and that there is misplaced reliance on sometimes ill-trained and overworked social workers.
The Supreme Court has held that people are entitled to a lawyer if they are facing any imprisonable offense. If you are facing a shoplifting charge and six months in jail, you are entitled to a lawyer and if you can't afford one the court has to appoint one for you.
Potter Stewart and Justice Lewis F. Powell recently bled with sympathy for a stock company president convicted of fraud. "With all respect," Powell said in a dissent that Stewart joined, "It seems to me that the court's decision today lacks the sensitivity that traditionally has marked our review of the Government's imposition upon citizens of severe penalties and permanent stigma." Yet as the result of Stewart's opinion Abby Gail Lassiter probably will never see her child again and the child will never see his siblings again. That's a severe penalty and a permanent stigma imposed on a person without legal representation, the most basic element in the fairness standard known as due process of law. But Justice Stewart and Justice Powell and a majority of the Supreme Court are obviously selective about the objects of their sensitivity. Having lavished so much on the well-to-do, there must not have been enough left for the poor.