Opening the courthouse door to a low-income woman who seeks the right to see her children again, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that states may not set high fees or other costs that effectively bar poor people from legal appeals in parental rights cases.
“No ties are more precious than those binding parent and child,” said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, speaking from the bench.
Her opinion for a 6-3 majority requires Mississippi court officials to waive a $2,352 transcript fee imposed on a young waitress who was appealing the loss of her two children.
Over the years, the Supreme Court has been reluctant to force the government to subsidize civil suits, many of which involve property disputes and money claims.
Monday’s ruling cuts out a narrow exception for court orders that terminate parental rights.
The ruling revives an appeal filed by Melissa L. Brooks, whose parental rights were terminated by a judge in Benton County, Miss. Most states waive court costs for poor people in parental rights cases. But the Mississippi courts have refused to make any accommodation for the poor.
In 1992, Brooks and her husband had divorced and their two children were kept in his custody. After he remarried, the husband won a court order that allowed his new wife to adopt the children. Though no evidence was presented that Melissa Brooks had abused or mistreated her children, the judge nonetheless terminated her rights even to visit them.
Melissa Brooks was told that she had to pay $2 per page for a court transcript that ran nearly 1,000 pages, along with a $438 fee for other documents. Earning only $2.15 an hour as a waitress, Brooks said that she could not pay the costs.
The Mississippi Supreme Court then dismissed her appeal.
“In view of the magnitude and permanence of the loss at stake … we hold that Mississippi may not deny Melissa L. Brooks, because of her poverty, access to appellate review to test the adequacy of the evidence on which she was judged unfit to remain a parent,” Ginsburg said in the case.
“This is a grand Christmas present. This is the best news I’ve heard in a long time,” Brooks said.