Monday, February 25, 2002
Ninth Circuit Rules That ‘Deadbeat’ Mother Can Be Denied Passport
Panel Rejects Woman’s Claim of Constitutional Right to Travel Internationally
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The U.S. may deny a passport to a citizen who is behind in child support payments, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
The ruling upholds a federal law that allows the State department to deny a passport to anyone who is $5,000 or more behind on a child support debt to the other parent.
Judge Ferdinand F. Fernandez said that unlike the right to interstate travel, which can be revoked only under the most narrowly tailored circumstances, the constitutional right to international travel can be limited if the law is deemed to advance a reasonable governmental purpose such as upholding the welfare of children.
The statute in question easily passes the due process test of a rational relationship between the law and a legitimate government interest, the judge said.
“There can be no doubt that the failure of parents to support their children is recognized by our society as a serious offense against morals and welfare,” Fernandez said.
The ruling upholds the denial of a passport to Eudene Eunique, a lawyer in the desert town of Lucerne Valley.
Eunique had argued international travel was her constitutional right.
The appeals court ruled 2-1 that Eunique should not be given a passport that would let her visit family in Mexico and establish potential business contacts with a Peruvian law firm. That money instead should be spent on her children, the court ruled.
The justices also noted that Eunique could simply leave the country and skip out on her debts altogether.
Eunique filed the case “because she feels that her right to the pleasures and benefits of international travel has been improperly curtailed,” the judges wrote. “Unfortunately for her, Congress has decreed that her duties to her children must take precedence over her international travel plans.”
That reference was to the 1996 federal welfare reform act, which included language requiring the State Department to deny anyone a passport if they owe more than $5,000 in child support. The law also allowed for the garnisheeing of wages to pay the arrears.
As of October 2000, custodial parents nationwide reported receiving just $17.1 billion of the $29 billion they were due, according to Census Bureau data.
Local laws have also sought to clamp down on child support scofflaws with means at their own disposal. Both the city and county of Los Angeles, for example, bar contracting with a firm in which any fulltime employee is in arrears in child support payments.
Child support advocates lauded the decision.
“Fortunately, we have a whole bank of laws to prevent people from walking away from their children,” said Melanie Snider, executive director of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support. “If you have children, you should be responsible for them.”
Eunique did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
She agreed to pay $175 a month per child when she divorced her husband, according to the opinion. She told the justices the debt ballooned to nearly $30,000 because business was not going well—and obtaining a passport could enhance her business opportunities.
That argument won sympathy from dissenting Judge Andrew Kleinfeld, who wrote that the right to travel should trump the obligation to pay child support.
“Debts for child support have special moral force,” he wrote. “But that does not justify tossing away a constitutional liberty so important that it has been a constant of Anglo-American law since Magna Carta, and of civilized thought since Plato.”
But the majority distinguished between constitutional travel rights, citing Supreme Court precedent holding that the right to international travel can be regulated within the bounds of due process.
Strict scrutiny applies to laws that affect travel from one state to another within the U.S., Fernandez wrote, but the analysis is different when confronted with laws regulating a person’s right to get a passport for international travel.
Congress’ “rational goal” in imposing the child support restriction on passports is readily apparent, he said.
“[I]nternational travel by what our society calls ‘deadbeat parents’ presents even more difficulties because the United States cannot easily reach them once they have left the country,” Fernandez said.
“Congress also has financial concerns because unsupported children must often look to the public fisc, including the federal treasury, for financial sustenance. That was an impetus fir the enactment with which we now deal; it is the reason the Child Support Enforcement Act Program....was enacted in the first place, and was quite properly upheld by the Tenth Circuit, despite attacks on various constitutional grounds, not including the ground that we consider here.”
The case is Eunique v. Powell, 99-56984.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company