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Goldberg v. Kelly

The Principles Involved

Before Goldberg v. Kelly, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protected U.S. residents in certain situations defined as their legal rights through common law.

Common law refers to governmental principles and courses of action which owe their authority to older bodies of law. In relation to the U.S. Constitution, common law usually refers to governmental procedures handed down from England and the American colonies before the American Revolution. The statutes and case laws subsumed by common law usually apply to those rules and principles having to do with a person's security and the security of property. Common law is in contrast to laws enacted by the legislature. In other words, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed some sort of governmental hearing if a person's rights were compromised.

Traditionally, courts, through common law, have interpreted the basic rights of an individual as life, liberty, and property. This was in contrast to a person's privileges or benefits received from the government. If the government denied a "benefit" like public employment, welfare or the like, the Due Process Clause was invalid. No hearing was required. The legal interpretation had been that if the government was providing something it did not have to provide, it could impose any conditions it wanted.

In contrast, there was also an "unconstitutional conditions" doctrine that said even though the government could deny benefits for any given reason, it could not deny these benefits if a person's constitutionally protected interests were violated. That was before Goldberg v. Kelly.

During the 1960s especially, it was already becoming apparent that the government had become more of a partner with U.S. residents than previously--to the point where a person's life and security were entangled closely with governmental "privileges," such as licenses of all sorts, social security benefits, employment and welfare.

At least one legal scholar pointed out the necessity of creating a new order of property so that in modern society, these new relationships with the government which had been thought of previously as merely "privileges" or "benefits" would be protected by the safeguards included in the Due Process Clause. In short, the difference between rights and privileges had begun to blur. As this distinction between rights and privileges diminished, another grew to take its place. This would be known as the principle of "entitlement" which became the basis for the Supreme Court to establish a shield of procedural protections to keep the government from erroneously or capriciously depriving a person of something it had given, at its discretion.

With Goldberg v. Kelly, the meaning of property--as used in the Due Process Clause--expanded to include welfare benefits, previously thought of as a privilege or benefit.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Goldberg v. Kelly - The Principles Involved, What Happened, Procedural Due Process