Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Boddie v. Connecticut, 401 US 371 (1971)
This case addresses the following issue:
Is it possible to have the “court fees” waived for a divorce proceeding?
This case explored the issue of whether a state can require every resident to pay the required fees to obtain a divorce, even if they do not have the financial means to do so. In exploring the issue, the United States Supreme Court concluded that the 14th Amendment forbids a state to require people without the financial ability to pay to get a divorce. This is because the only way to obtain a divorce is to go through the state, and doing so would violate due process rights. The court analogized the situation with that of a poor criminal defendant who cannot avoid using the court system, and the financial restrictions have been since removed for situations like this.
Gladys Boddie (plaintiff) was a resident of Connecticut. Gladys was a poor individual who received government aid in the form of welfare benefits. Gladys was married and wished to obtain a divorce but could not do so because of her financial situation. Connecticut had a fee requirement for service of process. This fee requirement limited those who could not pay the fee when attempting to get a divorce decree. The average fee for a divorce was $60 plus an additional $45 to cover the court costs. Gladys, and other poor residents of Connecticut, brought suit in federal district court against the State of Connecticut (defendant). The district court found that the statute requiring the fee was constitutional. Gladys appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
Gladys’ argument was based on the idea that Connecticut’s requirement of the payment of fees to bring certain court actions prevented some residents from filing for divorces. Gladys argued that the Connecticut law violated her due process rights making the required fees unconstitutional.
The United States Supreme Court ruled that a state could not deny residents seeking to obtain a divorce decree solely because they were not able to pay the fees associated with doing so. The Court reasoned that this would be a violation of the residents’ due process because individuals cannot divorce themselves without assistance from the state. Connecticut argued that the fee requirement helped prevent frivolous litigation. Connecticut also argued that the fees helped allocate scarce resources. Ultimately, the Court stated that the residents’ constitutional rights trump the reasons in favor of the required fees stated by Connecticut.
In sum, due process allows for the fees associated with a divorce action to be waived in extreme financial situations. A state cannot deny an individual access to a divorce based solely on their inability to pay the fees.