NCLEJ Celebrates 40th Anniversary of Goldberg v. Kelly, Landmark Supreme Court Victory

The Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254 (1970), on March 23, 1970 – forty years ago – in a case brought by the National Center for Law and Economic Justice (then the Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law) and MFY Legal Services. NCLEJ argued the case in the Supreme Court.

In a profoundly moving decision by Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., the Court ruled that public agencies could not arbitrarily terminate vital public benefits until they had provided reasons and an opportunity to contest those reasons. This basic holding has been incorporated into the operations of many public programs and in the statutes governing them. It remains good law which we cite and rely upon today. While the holding remains good law, the sensibility of many courts has changed profoundly. Consider the following lines from Justice Brennan’s opinion:

[T]here is one overpowering fact which controls here. By hypothesis, a welfare recipient is destitute, without funds or assets. Suffice it to say that to cut off a welfare recipient in the face of … `brutal need’ without a prior hearing of some sort is unconscionable, unless overwhelming considerations justify it.

Against the justified desire to protect public funds must be weighed the individual’s over-powering need in this unique situation not to be wrongfully deprived of assistance….

Thus the crucial factor in this context … is that termination of aid pending resolution of a controversy over eligibility may deprive an eligible recipient of the very means by which to live while he waits. Since he lacks independent resources, his situation becomes immediately desperate. His need to concentrate upon finding the means for daily subsistence, in turn, adversely affects his ability to seek redress from the welfare bureaucracy.

From its founding the Nation’s basic commitment has been to foster the dignity and well-being of all persons within its borders. We have come to recognize that forces not within the control of the poor contribute to their poverty…. Welfare, by meeting the basic demands of subsistence, can help bring within the reach of the poor the same opportunities that are available to others to participate meaningfully in the life of the community.


Henry A. Freedman, Executive Director of the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, was privileged to be a Reginald Heber Smith Fellow at the Center in 1967 where he had the opportunity to help draft the original papers and participate in the litigation. He suggests that persons interested in a fascinating account of the development of the case turn to Brutal Need by Martha Davis, written in 1993 and available through online booksellers.