Due Process Clause

In the early 1970s, however, many scholars accepted that “life, liberty or property” was directly affected by state action, and wanted these concepts to be broadly interpreted. Two Supreme Court cases involved teachers at state colleges whose contracts of employment had not been renewed as they expected, because of some political positions they had taken. Were they entitled to a hearing before they could be treated in this way? Previously, a state job was a “privilege” and the answer to this question was an emphatic “No!” Now, the Court decided that whether either of the two teachers had “property” would depend in each instance on whether persons in their position, under state law, held some form of tenure. One teacher had just been on a short term contract; because he served “at will” — without any state law claim or expectation to continuation — he had no “entitlement” once his contract expired. The other teacher worked under a longer-term arrangement that school officials seemed to have encouraged him to regard as a continuing one. This could create an “entitlement,” the Court said; the expectation need not be based on a statute, and an established custom of treating instructors who had taught for X years as having tenure could be shown. While, thus, some law-based relationship or expectation of continuation had to be shown before a federal court would say that process was “due,” constitutional “property” was no longer just what the common law called “property”; it now included any legal relationship with the state that state law regarded as in some sense an “entitlement” of the citizen. Licenses, government jobs protected by civil service, or places on the welfare rolls were all defined by state laws as relations the citizen was entitled to keep until there was some reason to take them away, and therefore process was due before they could be taken away. This restated the formal “right/privilege” idea, but did so in a way that recognized the new dependency of citizens on relations with government, the “new property” as one scholar influentially called it.

When process is due
In its early decisions, the Supreme Court seemed to indicate that when only property rights were at stake (and particularly if there was some demonstrable urgency for public action) necessary hearings could be postponed to follow provisional, even irreversible, government action. This presumption changed in 1970 with the decision in Goldberg v. Kelly, a case arising out of a state-administered welfare program. The Court found that before a state terminates a welfare recipient’s benefits, the state must provide a full hearing before a hearing officer, finding that the Due Process Clause required such a hearing.

What procedures are due
Just as cases have interpreted when to apply due process, others have determined the sorts of procedures which are constitutionally due. This is a question that has to be answered for criminal trials (where the Bill of Rights provides many explicit answers), for civil trials (where the long history of English practice provides some landmarks), and for administrative proceedings, which did not appear on the legal landscape until a century or so after the Due Process Clause was first adopted. Because there are the fewest landmarks, the administrative cases present the hardest issues, and these are the ones we will discuss.

The Goldberg Court answered this question by holding that the state must provide a hearing before an impartial judicial officer, the right to an attorney’s help, the right to present evidence and argument orally, the chance to examine all materials that would be relied on or to confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses, or a decision limited to the record thus made and explained in an opinion. The Court’s basis for this elaborate holding seems to have some roots in the incorporation doctrine.

Many argued that the Goldberg standards were too broad, and in subsequent years, the Supreme Court adopted a more discriminating approach. Process was “due” to the student suspended for ten days, as to the doctor deprived of his license to practice medicine or the person accused of being a security risk; yet the difference in seriousness of the outcomes, of the charges, and of the institutions involved made it clear there could be no list of procedures that were always “due.” What the Constitution required would inevitably be dependent on the situation. What process is “due” is a question to which there cannot be a single answer.

A successor case to Goldberg, Mathews v. Eldridge, tried instead to define a method by which due process questions could be successfully presented by lawyers and answered by courts. The approach it defined has remained the Court’s preferred method for resolving questions over what process is due. Mathews attempted to define how judges should ask about constitutionally required procedures. The Court said three factors had to be analyzed:

First, the private interest that will be affected by the official action; second, the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used, and the probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards; and finally, the Government’s interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirement would entail.
Using these factors, the Court first found the private interest here less significant than in Goldberg. A person who is arguably disabled but provisionally denied disability benefits, it said, is more likely to be able to find other “potential sources of temporary income” than a person who is arguably impoverished but provisionally denied welfare assistance. Respecting the second, it found the risk of error in using written procedures for the initial judgment to be low, and unlikely to be significantly reduced by adding oral or confrontational procedures of the Goldberg variety. It reasoned that disputes over eligibility for disability insurance typically concern one’s medical condition, which could be decided, at least provisionally, on the basis of documentary submissions; it was impressed that Eldridge had full access to the agency’s files, and the opportunity to submit in writing any further material he wished. Finally, the Court now attached more importance than the Goldberg Court had to the government’s claims for efficiency. In particular, the Court assumed (as the Goldberg Court had not) that “resources available for any particular program of social welfare are not unlimited.” Thus additional administrative costs for suspension hearings and payments while those hearings were awaiting resolution to persons ultimately found undeserving of benefits would subtract from the amounts available to pay benefits for those undoubtedly eligible to participate in the program. The Court also gave some weight to the “good-faith judgments” of the plan administrators what appropriate consideration of the claims of applicants would entail.

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