John Santosky v. Bernhardt S. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745 (1982)

CASE: Parents sue on due process grounds when state removes their children.

FACTS: Three Santosky children were removed from the family home after the state found evidence of abuse and neglect. When the county tried to initiate parental termination proceedings against the Santoskys, the couple challenged the law authorizing termination on due process grounds. Under the statute, the state only need prove permanent neglect by "a fair preponderance of the evidence." The Santoskys contended this standard was so low as to deprive them of a fundamental right without due process of law.

QUESTION: Whether a statute permitting the state to establish permanent neglect, for the purposes of terminating the rights of parents in their natural children, by a "fair preponderance of the evidence" deprives parents of the fundamental liberty interest of natural parents in the care, custody and management of their children without due process of law.

COURT SAYS: Appellate Division order vacated, case remanded.

HOLDING: Statute permitting state to permanently terminate a parent's nterest in the care, custody and management of her child deprives the parent of a fundamental liberty interest without due process of law, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.


  • The risk of error from using a preponderance standard is substantial; the countervailing governmental interest favoring that standard is comparatively light and the private interest affected is commanding.
  • The state has superior litigation powers and is able to keep coming back at the parents when it gathers new and better evidence.
  • These proceedings are vulnerable to cultural or class bias because they employ imprecise sunstantive standards that leave determinations open to the subjective values of the judge.
  • Elevated standard would not create any real administrative burdens for the state's factfinders.

    DISSENT (Rhenquist, White, O'Connor, Berger): "When, in the context of a permanent neglect termination proceeding, the interests of the child and the State in a stable, nurturing homelife are balanced against the interests of the parents in the rearing of their child, it cannot be said that either set of interests is so clearly paramount as to require that the risk of error be allocated to one side or the other. Accordingly, a State constitutionally may conclude that the risk of error should be borne in roughly equal fashion by use of the preponderance of the evidence standard of proof."

    T O P