United States Department of Agriculture v. Moreno/Concurrence Douglas

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United States Department of Agriculture v. Moreno
Concurrence Douglas by William O. Douglas
Court Documents
Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Concurring Opinion
Dissenting Opinion

Mr. Justice Douglas, concurring.

Appellee Jacinta Moreno is a 56-year-old diabetic who lives with Ermina Sanchez and the latter's three children. The two share common living expenses, Mrs. Sanchez helping to care for this appellee. Appellee's monthly income is $75, derived from public assistance, and Mrs. Sanchez' is $ 133, also derived from public assistance. This household pays $95 a month for rent, of which appellee pays $40, and $40 a month for gas and electricity, of which appellee pays $10. Appellee spends $10 a month for transportation to a hospital for regular visits and $ 5 a month for laundry. That leaves her $10 a month for food and other necessities. Mrs. Sanchez and the three children received $108 worth of food stamps per month for $18. But under the "unrelated" person provision of the Act,[1] she will be cut off if appellee Moreno continues to live with her.

Appellee Sheilah Hejny is married and has three children, ages two to five. She and her husband took in a 20-year-old girl who is unrelated to them. She shares in the housekeeping. The Hejnys pay $14 a month and receive $144 worth of food stamps. The Hejnys comprise an indigent household. But if they allow the 20-year-old girl to live with them, they too will be cut off from food stamps by reason of the "unrelated" person provision.

Appellee Keppler has a daughter with an acute hearing deficiency who requires instruction in a school for the deaf. The school is in an area where the mother cannot afford to live. So she and her two minor children moved into a nearby apartment with a woman who, like appellee Keppler, is on public assistance but who is not related to her. As a result appellee Keppler's food stamps have been cut off because of the "unrelated" person provision.

These appellees instituted a class action to enjoin the enforcement of the "unrelated" person provision of the Act.

The "unrelated" person provision of the Act creates two classes of persons for food stamp purposes: one class is composed of people who are all related to each other and all in dire need; and the other class is composed of households that have one or more persons unrelated to the others but have the same degree of need as those in the first class. The first type of household qualifies for relief, the second cannot qualify, no matter the need. It is that application of the Act which is said to violate the conception of equal protection that is implicit in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497, 499.

The test of equal protection is whether the legislative line that is drawn bears "some rational relationship to a legitimate" governmental purpose.[2] Weber v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 406 U.S. 164, 172. The requirement of equal protection denies government "the power to legislate that different treatment be accorded to persons placed by a statute into different classes on the basis of criteria wholly unrelated to the objective" of the enactment. Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71, 75-76.

This case involves desperately poor people with acute problems who, though unrelated, come together for mutual help and assistance. The choice of one's associates for social, political, race, or religious purposes is basic in our constitutional scheme. NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449, 460; De Jonge v. Oregon, 299 U.S. 353, 363; NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415, 429-431; Gibson v. Florida Legislative Committee, 372 U.S. 539; NAACP v. Alabama, 377 U.S. 288. It extends to "the associational rights of the members" of a trade union. Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen v. Virginia Bar, 377 U.S. 1, 8.

I suppose no one would doubt that an association of people working in the poverty field would be entitled to the same constitutional protection as those working in the racial, banking, or agricultural field. I suppose poor people holding a meeting or convention would be under the same constitutional umbrella as others. The dimensions of the "unrelated" person problem under the Food Stamp Act are in that category. As the facts of this case show, the poor are congregating in households where they can better meet the adversities of poverty. This banding together is an expression of the right of freedom of association that is very deep in our traditions.

Other like rights have been recognized that are only peripheral First Amendment rights--the right to send one's child to a religious school, the right to study the German language in a private school, the protection of the entire spectrum of learning, teaching, and communicating ideas, the marital right of privacy. Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 482-483.

As the examples indicate, these peripheral constitutional rights are exercised not necessarily in assemblies that congregate in halls or auditoriums but in discrete individual actions such as parents placing a child in the school of their choice. Taking a person into one's home because he is poor or needs help or brings happiness to the household is of the same dignity.

Congress might choose to deal only with members of a family of one or two or three generations, treating it all as a unit. Congress, however, has not done that here. Concededly an individual living alone is not disqualified from the receipt of food stamp aid, even though there are other members of the family with whom he might theoretically live. Nor are common-law couples disqualified: they, like individuals living alone, may qualify under the Act if they are poor--whether they have abandoned their wives and children and however antifamily their attitudes may be. In other words, the "unrelated" person provision was not aimed at the maintenance of normal family ties. It penalizes persons or families who have brought under their roof an "unrelated" needy person. It penalizes the poorest of the poor for doubling up against the adversities of poverty.

But for the constitutional aspects of the problem, the "unrelated" person provision of the Act might well be sustained as a means to prevent fraud. Fraud is a concern of the Act. 7 U.S.C. §§ 2023 (b) and (c). Able-bodied persons must register and accept work or lose their food stamp rights. 7 U.S.C. § 2014 (c). I could not say that this "unrelated" person provision has no "rational" relation to control of fraud. We deal here, however, with the right of association, protected by the First Amendment. People who are desperately poor but unrelated come together and join hands with the aim better to combat the crises of poverty. The need of those living together better to meet those crises is denied, while the need of households made up of relatives that is no more acute is serviced. Problems of the fisc, as we stated in Shapiro v. Thompson, 394 U.S. 618, 633, are legitimate concerns of government. But government "may not accomplish such a purpose by invidious distinctions between classes of its citizens." Ibid.

The legislative history of the Act indicates that the "unrelated" person provision of the Act was to prevent "essentially unrelated individuals who voluntarily chose to cohabit and live off food stamps"[3]--so-called "hippies" or "hippy communes"--from participating in the food stamp program. As stated in the Conference Report,[4] the definition of household was "designed to prohibit food stamp assistance to communal 'families' of unrelated individuals."

The right of association, the right to invite the stranger into one's home is too basic in our constitutional regime to deal with roughshod. If there are abuses inherent in that pattern of living against which the food stamp program should be protected, the Act must be "narrowly drawn," Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 307, to meet the precise end. The method adopted and applied to these cases makes § 3 (e) of the Act unconstitutional by reason of the invidious discrimination between the two classes of needy persons.

Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471, is not opposed. It sustained a Maryland grant of welfare, against the claim of violation of equal protection, which placed an upper limit on the monthly amount any single family could receive. The claimants had large families so that their standard of need exceeded the actual grants. Their claim was that the grants of aid considered in light of the size of their families created an invidious discrimination against them and in favor of small needy families. The claim was rejected on the basis that state economic or social legislation had long been judged by a less strict standard than comes into play when constitutionally protected rights are involved. Id., at 484-485. Laws touching social and economic matters can pass muster under the Equal Protection Clause though they are imperfect, the test being whether the classification has some "reasonable basis." Ibid. Dandridge held that "the Fourteenth Amendment gives the federal courts no power to impose upon the States their views of what constitutes wise economic or social policy." Id., at 486. But for the First Amendment aspect of the case, Dandridge would control here.

Dandridge, however, did not reach classifications touching on associational rights that lie in the penumbra of the First Amendment. Since the "unrelated" person provision is not directed to the maintenance of the family as a unit but treats impoverished households composed of relatives more favorably than impoverished households having a single unrelated person, it draws a line that can be sustained only on a showing of a "compelling" governmental interest.

The "unrelated" person provision of the present Act has an impact on the rights of people to associate for lawful purposes with whom they choose. When state action "may have the effect of curtailing the freedom to associate" it "is subject to the closest scrutiny." NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S., at 460-461. The "right of the people peaceably to assemble" guaranteed by the First Amendment covers a wide spectrum of human interests--including, as stated in id., at 460, "political, economic, religious, or cultural matters." Banding together to combat the common foe of hunger is in that category. The case therefore falls within the zone represented by Shapiro v. Thompson, supra, which held that a waiting period on welfare imposed by a State on the "immigration of indigents" penalizing the constitutional right to travel could not be sustained absent a "compelling governmental interest." Id., at 631, 634.


  1. . Section 3 (e) of the Food Stamp Act provides in relevant part:
  2. . The purpose of the present Act was stated by Congress:
  3. . See 116 Cong. Rec. 42003.
  4. . H. R. Conf. Rep. No. 91-1793, p. 8.