Amdt14.S1.5.2.3 The Liberty Interest

Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

With respect to liberty interests, the Court has followed a similarly meandering path. Although the traditional concept of liberty was freedom from physical restraint, the Court has expanded the concept to include various other protected interests, some statutorily created and some not. 1 Thus, in Ingraham v. Wright, 2 the Court unanimously agreed that school children had a liberty interest in freedom from wrongfully or excessively administered corporal punishment, whether or not such interest was protected by statute. The liberty preserved from deprivation without due process included the right ‘generally to enjoy those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.’ . . . Among the historic liberties so protected was a right to be free from, and to obtain judicial relief for, unjustified intrusions on personal security.3

The Court also appeared to have expanded the notion of liberty to include the right to be free of official stigmatization, and found that such threatened stigmatization could in and of itself require due process. 4 Thus, in Wisconsin v. Constantineau, 5 the Court invalidated a statutory scheme in which persons could be labeled excessive drinkers, without any opportunity for a hearing and rebuttal, and could then be barred from places where alcohol was served. The Court, without discussing the source of the entitlement, noted that the governmental action impugned the individual’s reputation, honor, and integrity. 6

But, in Paul v. Davis, 7 the Court appeared to retreat from recognizing damage to reputation alone, holding instead that the liberty interest extended only to those situations where loss of one’s reputation also resulted in loss of a statutory entitlement. In Davis, the police had included plaintiff’s photograph and name on a list of active shoplifters circulated to merchants without an opportunity for notice or hearing. But the Court held that Kentucky law does not extend to respondent any legal guarantee of present enjoyment of reputation which has been altered as a result of petitioners’ actions. Rather, his interest in reputation is simply one of a number which the State may protect against injury by virtue of its tort law, providing a forum for vindication of those interest by means of damage actions.8 Thus, unless the government’s official defamation has a specific negative effect on an entitlement, such as the denial to excessive drinkers of the right to obtain alcohol that occurred in Constantineau, there is no protected liberty interest that would require due process.

A number of liberty interest cases that involve statutorily created entitlements involve prisoner rights, and are dealt with more extensively in the section on criminal due process. However, they are worth noting here. In Meachum v. Fano, 9 the Court held that a state prisoner was not entitled to a fact-finding hearing when he was transferred to a different prison in which the conditions were substantially less favorable to him, because (1) the Due Process Clause liberty interest by itself was satisfied by the initial valid conviction, which had deprived him of liberty, and (2) no state law guaranteed him the right to remain in the prison to which he was initially assigned, subject to transfer for cause of some sort. As a prisoner could be transferred for any reason or for no reason under state law, the decision of prison officials was not dependent upon any state of facts, and no hearing was required.

In Vitek v. Jones, 10 by contrast, a state statute permitted transfer of a prisoner to a state mental hospital for treatment, but the transfer could be effectuated only upon a finding, by a designated physician or psychologist, that the prisoner suffers from a mental disease or defect and cannot be given treatment in that facility. Because the transfer was conditioned upon a cause, the establishment of the facts necessary to show the cause had to be done through fair procedures. Interestingly, however, the Vitek Court also held that the prisoner had a residuum of liberty in being free from the different confinement and from the stigma of involuntary commitment for mental disease that the Due Process Clause protected. Thus, the Court has recognized, in this case and in the cases involving revocation of parole or probation, 11 a liberty interest that is separate from a statutory entitlement and that can be taken away only through proper procedures.

But, with respect to the possibility of parole or commutation or otherwise more rapid release, no matter how much the expectancy matters to a prisoner, in the absence of some form of positive entitlement, the prisoner may be turned down without observance of procedures. 12 Summarizing its prior holdings, the Court recently concluded that two requirements must be present before a liberty interest is created in the prison context: the statute or regulation must contain substantive predicates limiting the exercise of discretion, and there must be explicit mandatory language requiring a particular outcome if substantive predicates are found. 13 In an even more recent case, the Court limited the application of this test to those circumstances where the restraint on freedom imposed by the state creates an atypical and significant hardship.14

Footnotes

  1.  These procedural liberty interests should not, however, be confused with substantive liberty interests, which, if not outweighed by a sufficient governmental interest, may not be intruded upon regardless of the process followed. See Fundamental Rights (Noneconomic Due Process), supra.
  2.  430 U.S. 651 (1977).
  3.  430 U.S. at 673. The family-related liberties discussed under substantive due process, as well as the associational and privacy ones, no doubt provide a fertile source of liberty interests for procedural protection. See Armstrong v. Manzo, 380 U.S. 545 (1965) (natural father, with visitation rights, must be given notice and opportunity to be heard with respect to impending adoption proceedings); Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645 (1972) (unwed father could not simply be presumed unfit to have custody of his children because his interest in his children warrants deference and protection). See also Smith v. Organization of Foster Families, 431 U.S. 816 (1977); Little v. Streater, 452 U.S. 1 (1981); Lassiter v. Department of Social Services, 452 U.S. 18 (1981); Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745 (1982).
  4.  Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 569-70 (1972); Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565 (1975).
  5.  400 U.S. 433 (1971).
  6.  But see Connecticut Department of Public Safety v. Doe, 538 U.S. 1 (2003) (posting of accurate information regarding sex offenders on state Internet website does not violate due process as the site does not purport to label the offenders as presently dangerous).
  7.  424 U.S. 693 (1976).
  8.  Here the Court, 424 U.S. at 701-10, distinguished Constantineau as being a reputation-plus case. That is, it involved not only the stigmatizing of one posted but it also deprived the individual of a right previously held under state law – the right to purchase or obtain liquor in common with the rest of the citizenry. 424 U.S. at 708. How the state law positively did this the Court did not explain. But, of course, the reputation-plus concept is now well-settled. See discussion below. See also Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 573 (1972); Siegert v. Gilley, 500 U.S. 226 (1991); Paul v. Davis, 424 U.S. 693, 711-12 (1976). In a later case, the Court looked to decisional law and the existence of common-law remedies as establishing a protected property interest. Memphis Light, Gas & Water Div. v. Craft, 436 U.S. 1, 9-12 (1978).
  9.  427 U.S. 215 (1976). See also Montanye v. Haymes, 427 U.S. 236 (1976).
  10.  445 U.S. 480 (1980).
  11.  Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471 (1972); Gagnon v. Scarpelli, 411 U.S. 778 (1973).
  12.  Greenholtz v. Nebraska Penal Inmates, 442 U.S. 1 (1979); Connecticut Bd. of Pardons v. Dumschat, 452 U.S. 458 (1981); Ohio Adult Parole Auth. v. Woodard, 523 U.S. 272 (1998); Jago v. Van Curen, 454 U.S. 14 (1981). See also Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974) (due process applies to forfeiture of good-time credits and other positivist granted privileges of prisoners).
  13.  Kentucky Dep’t of Corrections v. Thompson, 490 U.S. 454, 459-63 (1989) (prison regulations listing categories of visitors who may be excluded, but not creating a right to have a visitor admitted, contain substantive predicates but lack mandatory language).
  14.  Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 484 (1995) (30-day solitary confinement not atypical in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life); Wilkinson v. Austin, 545 U.S. 209, 224 (2005) (assignment to SuperMax prison, with attendant loss of parole eligibility and with only annual status review, constitutes an atypical and significant hardship).