Few people would recognize a 20-year-old Supreme Court decision called Goldberg v. Kelly, let alone accord it a place in the pantheon of the Court's major rulings.
But the decision has nonetheless touched the lives of millions of people. Written by Justice William J. Brennan Jr., Goldberg v. Kelly held that welfare recipients are constitutionally entitled to a hearing before their benefits can be terminated. The ruling transformed the administration of government benefits programs across the country and gave the concept of constitutional due process a broader interpretation than it had ever received.
Even in its obscurity, Goldberg v. Kelly remains a landmark. That was the message of a 20th-anniversary celebration last week that drew several hundred lawyers and law professors to Brooklyn Law School for a day of reflection on the origins and legacy of the case and, more generally, on the course of constitutional law.
The program also served as a reminder that it is not only the most famous Supreme Court decisions - the Brown v. Board of Educations and the Roe v. Wades - that make a difference.
How the Case Got Its Start
The conference participants came from as far away as California and from as close at hand as the neighborhood legal services offices and local welfare bureaucracy where Goldberg v. Kelly, a New York case, got its start.
No one was sure of the whereabouts of John Kelly, the disabled welfare recipient who became the lead plaintiff after his grant was cut off without notice when he moved out of the welfare hotel to which his caseworker had assigned him.
Jack Goldberg, whom a group of welfare recipients had sued in his capacity as New York City's Social Services Commissioner, died in 1974.
But Cesar A. Perales, Social Services Commissioner of New York State for the last eight years, was there. Twenty years ago he was a legal services lawyer representing welfare recipients. Now he runs a state welfare system that because of Goldberg v. Kelly holds 800 hearings every working day.
Welfare Recipients Prevail
Mr. Perales said welfare recipients prevailed in those hearings 80 percent of the time, persuading the hearing officers to overturn caseworkers' decisions that cut off benefits.
In New York State, Mr. Perales said, ''the constitutional concept of due process is made real more than 75,000 times each year.'' He added: ''Perhaps the most dramatic proof of the institutional saturation of Goldberg precepts is that its protections, once considered radical, are now taken for granted.''
Prof. Sylvia A. Law of New York University Law School recalled that as a new lawyer and ardent rock music fan in the summer of 1969, she gave up a chance to attend the Woodstock music festival in upstate New York to work on the welfare plaintiffs' Supreme Court brief.
She has never regretted her choice, Professor Law said. Goldberg v. Kelly has endured, she said, ''because it's for all of us, for anyone who has a driver's license, a taxi medallion, a license to practice law,'' or any other government benefit that now cannot be arbitrarily withdrawn.
Justice Brennan himself regards the 5-to-3 decision as one of his major achievements. In a 1987 speech to the New York City Bar Association, he spoke at length about the decision as one that ''opened a dialogue that continues to this day about the responsibilities of the bureaucratic state to its citizens.''
Putting Passion Into the System
In that speech Justice Brennan said that ''if due-process values are to be preserved in the bureaucratic state of the late 20th century, it may be essential that officials possess passion -the passion that puts them in touch with the dreams and disappointments of those with whom they deal.''
He added, ''Goldberg can be seen as injecting passion into a system whose abstract rationality had led it astray.''
While everyone who spoke at the conference agreed that the ruling was important, not all regarded it as correct.
Richard A. Epstein, a law professor from the University of Chicago, said that while the ruling was one of Justice Brennan's ''most powerful and artistic opinions,'' the holding was probably wrong, a misguided effort by the Federal judiciary to ''micromanage'' decisions best left to the political system.
And while the occasion was an anniversary celebration, the tone was more nostalgic and rueful than celebratory. Many participants spoke of Goldberg v. Kelly as a high-water mark not only of their own careers as young lawyers, but also of a bygone era in Supreme Court history.
A Summation, Not a Beginning
The decision was handed down on March 23, 1970, nine months after Warren E. Burger had replaced Earl Warren as Chief Justice. But in its spirit and method, Goldberg v. Kelly was the embodiment of the Warren Court, said Prof. Owen M. Fiss of Yale Law School. Chief Justice Burger dissented from the opinion, as did Justices Hugo L. Black and Potter Stewart.
Professor Fiss, a former law clerk to Justice Brennan and a self-described ''refugee from the 60's,'' said the decision came ''at an unusual historic moment, the end of one era and the beginning of another.'' Although many hoped that the ruling would prove to be the opening gun in a wide-ranging ''due-process revolution,'' he said, it proved instead to be ''not a new beginning, but a summation.''
The decision is not in danger of being overturned by the current Supreme Court, but neither is it likely to be cited as the basis for future rulings.
Professor Fiss said: ''Goldberg v. Kelly was handed down as American culture turned inward and we began to lose faith in the very idea of a public morality. We no longer believed that the Constitution or any other public law was an embodiment of a public morality to be known and elaborated through the exercise of reason.''
Prof. Minna J. Kotkin of Brooklyn Law School, who organized the conference, said the decision ''rests on a world view that seems almost quaintly, some might think naively, liberal in focus.'' She read to the audience a passage from Justice Brennan's opinion that was familiar to nearly everyone in the room.
'The Blessings of Liberty'
''From its founding, the nation's basic commitment has been to foster the dignity and well-being of all persons within its borders,'' Justice Brennan wrote. ''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.' '' Justice Brennan's quotation was from the preamble to the Constitution.
''When I read these words,'' Professor Kotkin said, ''I think how far we have come over the last 20 years from that view.''
But if many at the conference appeared resigned to thinking of Goldberg v. Kelly as a cherished period piece, one participant exhorted the audience to use it as the basis for a renewed call to arms.
He was Charles A. Reich, now a visiting law professor at the University of San Francisco who is well known as the author of ''The Greening of America.'' But to the group gathered last week, the 62-year-old professor is best known as the author of ''The New Property,'' an article in the Yale Law Journal in 1964 that outlined some of the basic concepts incorporated by Justice Brennan in his opinion.
An Aspect of 'Property'
A central thesis of Professor Reich's article was that welfare benefits are not government gratuities that can be taken away at will, but are an aspect of the ''property'' that the Constitution shields against arbitrary government action. The 14th Amendment provides, ''Nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.''
At the conference, Professor Reich said that just as Goldberg v. Kelly had extended the concept of ''property,'' the Constitution now should be interpreted to give enhanced meanings to ''person'' and ''life.''
''Not for a minute should we concede that existence in a cardboard box on a city sidewalk is 'life' in the constitutional sense,'' he added. ''Not for a moment should we allow that a person without heat or shelter during a freezing winter possesses 'life, liberty and property' in the constitutional sense.''
Professor Reich said the definition of ''person'' should include ''what is organically necessary to life, or inseparably a part of the person.''
An 'Affirmative Obligation'
The Constitution was written ''when it was sufficient to be left alone,'' he said. But in a complex modern economy in which ''the world is like an expensive hotel where even the smallest needs cost money,'' being left alone puts many people at risk, he said, adding:
''The negative constitutional guarantee of one era becomes the affirmative obligation of another era, not because the words of the Constitution have changed, but because the Constitution cannot be given its true meaning without affirmative action.''
It was a speech that left the middle-aged law professors cheering, as if they were 20 years younger and heading into another Woodstock summer. And their reaction left little doubt that they would choose to stay home and work on the brief.