LEHMAN V. LYCOMING CTY. CH. SVCS. AGCY., 458 U. S. 502 (1982)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Lehman v. Lycoming Cty. Ch. Svcs. Agcy., 458 U.S. 502 (1982)


Petitioner voluntarily placed her three sons in the legal custody of respondent county agency, which in turn placed them in foster homes. Thereafter, a Pennsylvania state court terminated petitioner's parental rights with respect to her sons because of parental incapacity, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed. Petitioner then filed an action in Federal District Court, seeking a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a), which requires a district court to entertain an application for such a writ in behalf "of a person in custody" pursuant to a state court judgment in alleged violation of the Federal Constitution. She requested a declaration of the invalidity of the Pennsylvania statute under which her parental rights were terminated and an order releasing her sons to her custody. The District Court dismissed the petition on the ground that respondent's custody over petitioner's sons was not the type of custody to which § 2254(a) may be addressed. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: Section 2254(a) does not confer jurisdiction on federal courts to consider collateral challenges to state court judgments involuntarily terminating parental rights. Pp. 458 U. S. 508-516.

(a) Although the scope of the federal writ of habeas corpus has been extended beyond that which the most literal reading of the statute might require, the writ has not been considered a generally available federal remedy for every violation of federal rights. The writ's availability has been limited to challenges to state court judgments in situations where, as a result of a state court criminal conviction, a petitioner has suffered substantial restraints not shared by the public generally, and the petitioner has been found to be "in custody" within the meaning of § 2254(a). Here, petitioner's children are not in the "custody" of the State in the way in which this term has been used in determining the availability of the writ of habeas corpus. They are in the "custody" of their foster parents in essentially the same way, and to the same extent, other children are in the custody of their natural or adoptive parents. They suffer no restraint on liberty not shared by the public generally, cf. Jones v. Cunningham, 371 U. S. 236; Hensley v. Municipal Court, 411 U. S. 345, nor

Page 458 U. S. 503

do they suffer "collateral consequences" sufficient to outweigh the need for finality, cf. Carafas v. LaVallee, 391 U. S. 234. To extend the federal writ to challenges to state child custody decisions based on alleged constitutional defects collateral to the actual custody decision would be an unprecedented expansion of the jurisdiction of the federal courts. Pp. 458 U. S. 508-512.

(b) Federalism and the exceptional need for finality in child custody disputes also argue strongly against the grant of the writ here. Extended uncertainty for the children would be inevitable in many cases if federal courts had jurisdiction to relitigate state custody decisions. Pp. 458 U. S. 512-514.

(c) Habeas corpus has been used in child custody cases in many States and in England, and 28 U.S.C. § 2255, authorizing federal court collateral review of federal decisions, could be construed to include the type of custody to which petitioner's children are subject. But reliance on what may be appropriate within the federal system or within a state system is of little force where, as in this case, a state judgment is attacked collaterally in a federal court. Petitioner would have the federal judicial system entertain a writ that is not time-barred to challenge collaterally a final judgment entered in a state judicial system. Pp. 458 U. S. 514-515.

648 F.2d 135, affirmed.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and WHITE, REHNQUIST, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined,post, p. 458 U. S. 516.

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