Goldberg v. Kelly et al., 397 U.S. 254 (1970)

Appeal before the Supreme Court alleging that beneficiaries of the federal program Aid to Families with Dependent Children or the New York State program Home Relief are entitled to procedural due process upon termination of their entitlement to these programs, in accordance with the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution.

Date of the Ruling: 
Mar 23 1970
United States Supreme Court
Type of Forum: 

The plaintiffs were recipients of the federal program Aid to Families with Dependent Children or the New York State program Home Relief who alleged that New York officials terminated or were about to terminate their benefits under the programs without notice or hearing. When the suit was filed, no rules were in place requiring that recipients be given notice or a hearing before losing their benefits. Before this appeal occurred, the state and city of New York adopted procedures for notice and hearing. The plaintiffs then challenged the adequacy of the new procedures.

In this case, the Supreme Court, emphasizing that benefits are a matter of statutory entitlement and not merely a ‘privilege,’ found that recipients of welfare are entitled to procedural due process when threatened with termination of their benefits. According to the Court, the interest of the eligible recipient in the uninterrupted receipt of public assistance, which provides him with essential food, clothing, housing, and medical care, coupled with the State's interest in providing services to those in need clearly outweighs the State's competing interest in minimizing costs and administrative burden. The Court held that due process in this context involves a pre-termination evidentiary hearing, particularly timely and adequate notice of the date of termination and reasons for it, an opportunity to present one’s arguments and confront adverse witnesses by giving evidence orally before an impartial decision-maker. The Court clarified that impartiality need not mean the decision-maker has no knowledge or relationship of any kind with the recipient, but that the decision-maker should not have made the decision under review. According to the Supreme Court, the recipient need not be provided with legal counsel, but should be permitted counsel if he or she chooses.

The Court found that New York’s newly established procedures for hearings were unconstitutional insofar as these processes did not permit recipients to appear personally, with or without counsel, present evidence orally, or cross-examine adverse witnesses.

Enforcement of the Decision and Outcomes: 

Following the judgment, New York City did not fight the requirements and did institute changes, but according to one commentator, the city government may never have implemented the requirements fully (Felicia Kornbluh, The Battle for Welfare Rights, 2007, p. 176). Nonetheless, it was reported, back in 1990, that the NY state welfare system because of Goldberg v. Kelly, held 800 hearings every working day. A Social Services Commissioner of New York State has said that, “Perhaps the most dramatic proof of the institutional saturation of Goldberg precepts is that its protections, once considered radical, are now taken for granted.'' In more general terms, the Goldberg decision had a major impact and generated a series of lower court decisions that applied many of the Goldberg due process protections afforded to beneficiaries of public assistance to applicants.

Groups involved in the case: 

The Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law (now called the National Center for Law and Economic Justice) and Mobilization for Youth (MFY) Legal Services brought the case. The National Institute for Education in Law and Poverty filed an amicus curiae brief.

Significance of the Case: 

Goldberg v Kelly is considered a landmark case on the procedural rights of beneficiaries of economic assistance. . The decision has been commended for “launching ‘the due process revolution’ in which standards of fairness were applied to the myriad benefits and regulations that flow from government.” (Tony Mauro, Illustrated Great Decisions of the Supreme Court, 2006, p. 35) Although not phrased in terms of ESCR, the case is an example of indirect protection of these rights through procedural rights to a fair hearing, where the entitlement to procedural rights stems from recognition of the profound need or “interest” the recipient of economic assistance has in the continuation of such support.

As stated above, the Goldberg decision generated several decisions that extended the Goldberg due process protections. Nevertheless, subsequent cases and doctrinal developments have limited Goldberg’s possible scope and effects as regards the advancement of welfare rights.

(Updated June 2015)