Goldberg v. Kelly (1970)

Case Summary

John Kelly and others sued when State and local officials terminated their welfare benefits without having given them prior notice and an opportunity to be heard. The plaintiffs won at trial, and the Commissioner of Social Services of the City of New York appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Court's Decision

The Supreme Court ruled that the Due Process Clause gives welfare recipients an opportunity to present evidence and arguments to an impartial decision maker before their welfare benefits are terminated.

Justice William Brennan wrote for the six-judge majority. “…[T]he crucial factor in this context…is that termination of aid pending resolution of a controversy over eligibility may deprive an eligible recipient of the very means by which to live while he waits.“ The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment therefore requires that some pre-termination hearing must be held, but it need not be a full judicial trial. Brennan concluded that constitutional safeguards require notice and the opportunity to appear personally or through an attorney, to present evidence, cross-examine witnesses, and make arguments.

Justice Hugo Black wrote in dissent that there were nine million welfare recipients in the United States, at least some of whom are not truly eligible for assistance. “…[T]he Court today holds that it would violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to stop paying those people weekly or monthly allowances unless the government first affords them a full 'evidentiary hearing' even though welfare officials are persuaded that the recipients are not rightfully entitled to receive a penny under the law.… I do not believe there is any provision in our Constitution that should thus paralyze the government's efforts to protect itself against making payments to people who are not entitled to them.“

More on the Case

Prior to Goldberg v. Kelly, welfare payments were widely considered to be a privilege or a charitable payment, rather than an entitlement. Justice Brennan stated, “From its founding the Nation's basic commitment has been to foster the dignity and well-being of all persons within its borders…. Welfare, by meeting the basic demands of subsistence, can help bring within the reach of the poor the same opportunities that are available to others to participate meaningfully in the life of the community.… Public assistance, then, is not mere charity, but a means to 'promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.'“

The Supreme Court has decided a large number of cases involving welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, and other forms of governmental payments. In Dandridge v. Williams, decided a month after Goldberg, the plaintiffs claimed that Maryland's Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program violated the Equal Protection Clause because it set a maximum grant size regardless of family size. The Court rejected this argument. Because Maryland does not have a limitless amount of money to spend on family assistance, it may set limits and make classifications that are reasonable even if they are not perfect.

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