DeShaney v. Winnebago Social Services, 489 U.S. 189; 1095 S. Ct. 998; 103 L. Ed. 2d 249 (1989)

DeShaney v. Winnebago Social Services, 489 U.S. 189; 1095 S. Ct. 998; 103 L. Ed. 2d 249 (1989)

Facts—Four-year-old Joshua DeShaney was the victim of continuing physical abuse by his father that eventually left him with permanent injuries leaving him in need of confinement in an institution for the profoundly retarded. He and his mother brought suit against the state, which had several times intervened on his behalf, asking that the Department of Social Services be held liable for his injuries under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The District Court granted summary judgment on behalf of the respondents, a judgment affirmed by the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Question—Does the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment make the state liable for injuries that a child suffered at the hands of his father?


ReasonsC.J. Rehnquist (6–3). The DeShaneys are attempting to read a substantive component into the due process clause, but this clause was designed “to protect the people from the State, not to ensure that the State protected them from each other.” The due process clause does not guarantee affirmative rights. Petitioners claim that such rights can arise out of “certain ‘special relationships’ created or assumed by the State with respect to particular individuals,” but precedents have limited such cases to those like confinement in a prison or mental institution where the state “takes a person in custody and holds him there against his will.” The fact that the state at times took temporary custody of Joshua did not make the state his personal guardian after it released him. If the state has a financial obligation to Joshua, it must be democratically ascertained through protection of state tort (personal injury) law rather than through the due process clause.

J. Brennan’s dissent focused on the fact that the state had assumed liability by extending protection to him on previous occasions and therefore assuming responsibility for him.

J. Blackmun’s dissent accused the majority of engaging in “sterile formalism.” He argued that the case before the Court was an “open” question that should be given “a ‘sympathetic’ reading,” which “comports with dictates of fundamental justice and recognizes that compassion need not be exiled from the province of judging.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Law Faculty
error: Content is protected !!