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Lassiter v. Department of Social Services


The decision in this case helped establish that the Court did not have to appoint counsel for an indigent parent as long as no criminal charges were involved.

One of the rights guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment is that of due process. In a general way it implies a procedure. A person cannot go to jail without a trial. A trial must contain a certain amount of elements and procedures to be considered within a citizen's constitutional right. This, however, is the concept's general meaning. Its specific meaning has changed through the years, evolving even into the twentieth century.

Originally, due process only referred to federal proceedings, but through the years, the Supreme Court reversed more and more convictions due to unfair state court proceedings. Beginning in 1897, the Supreme Court ruled that when a state takes private property from a person without just compensation to that person, due process is violated (Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Company v. Chicago).

This is a specific form of due process--procedural due process. When the question of procedural due process arises in a Supreme Court case, it refers to the fairness of a case in a lower court. Fairness is the issue at hand in the case of Lassiter v. Department of Social Services.

In May of 1975, a social worker took William Lassiter to the hospital because he was suffering from difficulty in breathing, malnutrition, and scarring that showed he had an untreated severe infection. After hearing that Abby Gail Lassiter had not provided the infant, William, with proper medical attention, the District Court of Durham County, North Carolina, ruled that William was a neglected child and he was transferred to the custody of the Durham County Department of Social Services.The child died.

A year after this, the state charged Lassiter with first degree murder and convicted her of second-degree murder. Her sentence was to be imprisonment for 25 to 40 years.

In 1978, the Social Services Department asked the court to take away Lassiter's parental rights because she had not had any contact with her son since December 1975. Also, she had left her son in foster care longer than two consecutive years without making virtually any attempt to correct the conditions which originally led to the department removing the child. Furthermore, she had not responded at all to the department's attempts at improving her relationship with her son, nor had she engaged in any dialogue with the department regarding her son's future.

In an effort to repeal her murder conviction, Lassiter had her mother engage the services of an attorney. When she met with this attorney, Lassiter apparently never mentioned the pending custody hearing. In fact, except to someone in prison with her, she never mentioned it to anyone.

On 31 August 1978, at the hearing, to which she had been brought from prison, the judge questioned whether Lassiter should have more time to obtain counsel. The court determined that she had had sufficient time to procure an attorney. Since Lassiter did not claim she was indigent, the court did not offer to appoint an attorney for her.

The judge established that when the Department of Social Services had served her with papers, she responded by saying she would not come. Also, it was brought out that on 8 May 1975, Lassiter's mother had filed a complaint with the department, stating that her daughter had left her children with her for days, providing no money or food during her absences. The result of the hearing was that Lassiter's relationship as mother to her son William was terminated because she had "willfully failed to maintain concern or responsibility for the minor," and because it was in her son's best interests.

In the course of an appeal, Lassiter's only argument was that since she was indigent, the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause guaranteed an attorney for her and the state had been mistaken in not providing her with counsel. The Court of Appeals of North Carolina ruled that even though terminating her status as William's mother invaded a "protected area of individual privacy," it was not serious enough, nor was it so unreasonable, as to believe it was "constitutionally correct to appoint counsel for indigent parents."

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the court's ruling. In Justice Stewart's opinion, he said, essentially, that the Court's tradition had been to rule that the more an indigent person's liberty was threatened, the more likely it was that the Court would rule in favor of a right to appointed counsel. In fact, the Court had refused, in the past, to grant the right of appointed counsel even in criminal cases, if the outcome did not involve defendants losing their personal liberty.

Summing up, Stewart emphasized that Supreme Court precedents clearly indicate that, in this context, "fundamental fairness" means that an indigent defendant only has a right to an appointed counsel if the consequences include possible loss of personal liberty. On the other hand, said Stewart's opinion, circumstances may dictate otherwise, in other custody questions, but in this case, it was evident that Lassiter was disinterested in her child. She had not discussed the case with an attorney when she had the opportunity. It was obviously in the child's best interests that the relationship be dissolved. Considering all of these things, the Court ruled that the presence of counsel would not have made a substantive difference.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Lassiter v. Department of Social Services - Significance, Further Readings