M. L. B. v. S. L. J., 519 U.S. 102 (1996)

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M. L. B. v. S. L. J., individually and as next friend of the minor children, S. L. J. and M. L. J., et ux.

certiorari to the supreme court of mississippi

No. 95-853. Argued October 7, 1996—Decided December 16, 1996

In a decree forever terminating petitioner M. L. B.'s parental rights to her two minor children, a Mississippi Chancery Court recited a segment of the governing Mississippi statute and stated, without elaboration, that respondents, the children's natural father and his second wife, had met their burden of proof by "clear and convincing evidence." The Chancery Court, however, neither described the evidence nor otherwise revealed precisely why M. L. B. was decreed a stranger to her children. M. L. B. filed a timely appeal from the termination decree, but Mississippi law conditioned her right to appeal on prepayment of record preparation fees estimated at $2,352.36. Lacking funds to pay the fees, M. L. B. sought leave to appeal in forma pauperis. The Supreme Court of Mississippi denied her application on the ground that, under its precedent, there is no right to proceed in forma pauperis in civil appeals. Urging that the size of her pocketbook should not be dispositive when "an interest far more precious than any property right" is at stake, Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U. S. 745, 758-759, M. L. B. contends in this Court that a State may not, consistent with the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, condition appeals from trial court decrees terminating parental rights on the affected parent's ability to pay record preparation fees.

Held: Just as a State may not block an indigent petty offender's access to an appeal afforded others, see Mayer v. Chicago, 404 U. S. 189, 195-196, so Mississippi may not deny M. L. B., because of her poverty, appellate review of the sufficiency of the evidence on which the trial court based its parental termination decree. Pp. 110-128. (a) The foundation case in the relevant line of decisions is Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U. S. 12, in which the Court struck down an Illinois rule that effectively conditioned thoroughgoing appeals from criminal convictions on the defendant's procurement of a transcript of trial proceedings. The Illinois rule challenged in Griffin deprived most defendants lacking the means to pay for a transcript of any access to appellate review. Although the Federal Constitution guarantees no right to appellate review, id., at 18 (plurality opinion), once a State affords that right, Griffin held, the State may not "bolt the door to equal justice," id., at 24 (Frank-

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