Salas v. Cortez

Decision Date11 April 1979
Citation24 Cal.3d 22,593 P.2d 226,154 Cal.Rptr. 529
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties, 593 P.2d 226 Julia Ann SALAS, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Miguel Martinez CORTEZ, Defendant and Appellant. DAVID M., a minor, etc., et al., Plaintiffs and Respondents, v. David Duran CASTELLANOS, Defendant and Appellant. L.A. 30971.

Richard A. Weinstock, John A. Lefcourte, Ventura, Robert Guerra and Manuel Jose Covarrubias, Oxnard, for defendants and appellants.

James O. Barney, George Chaffey, Pittsburg, Rosalyn M. Chapman, Erica Hahn and Joseph Charney, Los Angeles, as amici curiae on behalf of defendants and appellants.

Evelle J. Younger, Atty. Gen., Jack R. Winkler, Chief Asst. Atty. Gen., S. Clark Moore, Asst. Atty. Gen., Lawrence P. Scherb, II, Andrew D. Amerson and Pamela M. Nelson, Deputy Attys. Gen., for plaintiffs and respondents.

BIRD, Chief Justice.

In these consolidated appeals, this court must decide whether due process requires the appointment of counsel to represent indigent defendants in law suits brought at the behest of the state to determine the parentage of minor children.


Julia Salas, the mother of a child born out of wedlock, received welfare benefits from Ventura County under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. Suit was filed in order to (1) establish that Miguel Martinez Cortez was the father of the child, and (2) obtain child support. The Ventura County District Attorney represented Mrs. Salas in this action.

After appellant was personally served, he answered the complaint in propria persona, denying all allegations. The district attorney then sent appellant a seven-page set of interrogatories. When the district attorney moved to compel answers to these interrogatories, appellant requested court-appointed counsel. A declaration, prepared with the assistance of the Ventura County Legal Aid Association, was submitted by appellant denying he was the father of the child. He further declared that he could not speak, read or write English and, therefore, did not understand the numerous documents filed by the district attorney. Although presently an unemployed farm worker, ordinarily he earned about $400 per month to support his wife and their two children. Unable to afford the $500 requested by private counsel, appellant made several unsuccessful efforts to obtain free counsel from the Ventura County Legal Aid Association and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. Although he qualified for their services, both organizations informed him that they had insufficient staff to handle any more paternity and child support cases. Counsel was not appointed by the court.

At a subsequent hearing, an interpreter was appointed and appellant was ordered to answer the district attorney's interrogatories. Subsequently the district attorney served a request for admissions pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 2030, asking appellant to admit "That defendant is the father of (the child)," and that "defendant is able to pay child support in the amount of seventy-five dollars ($75.00) for support of (the child) . . .." Neither the interrogatories nor the district attorney's request for admissions was answered. The district attorney warned appellant that he intended to obtain a judgment based on the unanswered request for admissions.

Appellant did not appear for trial on May 12, 1976. The child's mother testified briefly and the statements in the unanswered request for admissions were deemed admitted. (Former Code Civ.Proc., § 2030, subd. (e)(2), see Code Civ.Proc., § 2033, subd. (a).) Appellant was found to be the father of the child and was ordered to pay $75 per month child support and $300 for past support. Payments were to be made through the district attorney's office. This appeal and the designation of the record were filed on appellant's behalf by the Ventura County Legal Aid Association.


David M., born out of wedlock, brought an action through his guardian ad litem, a family support officer in the Ventura County District Attorney's office, to declare appellant to be his father and to secure child support from him. The County of Ventura also sought reimbursement for support which it had already provided to the minor. The minor and the county were represented by the district attorney.

After he was personally served, appellant answered in propria persona, denying all allegations, and requested court-appointed counsel. The Ventura County Legal Aid Association filed on his behalf a motion for appointment of counsel with points and authorities in support of the motion. Appellant declared that as an unemployed laborer he could not afford the fees of $500 to $1,000 of private counsel. The public defender declined to represent him because the action was civil in nature, and the Ventura County Legal Aid Association informed appellant that they no longer represented defendants in such cases although they would assist him in preparing a defense. 1 The court denied appellant's request for counsel.

Subsequently, interrogatories and a request for admissions were served on appellant, but went unanswered. Appellant did not appear for trial on June 9, 1976, and the matter was submitted on the unanswered request for admissions and testimony of the child's mother. This testimony had been given at an earlier hearing on a motion for temporary child support at which appellant was not present. On this record, appellant was found to be the father of the child, ordered to pay $50 per month child support, and $1,214 for past support. These monies were payable through the district attorney's office. The Ventura County Legal Aid Association filed the notice of appeal and designation of the record on appeal.


These consolidated cases present a narrow question: Are indigent defendants in paternity proceedings prosecuted by the state constitutionally entitled to appointed counsel?

The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7, subdivision (a) of the California Constitution ensure that an individual may not be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. Central to this constitutional right is the guarantee that "absent a countervailing state interest of overriding significance, persons forced to settle their claims of right and duty through the judicial process must be given a meaningful opportunity to be heard." (Boddie v. Connecticut (1971) 401 U.S. 371, 377, 91 S.Ct. 780, 785, 28 L.Ed.2d 113; Payne v. Superior Court (1976) 17 Cal.3d 908, 914, 132 Cal.Rptr. 405, 553 P.2d 565.) This has been held to include the right of a defendant to appointed counsel under certain circumstances, regardless of whether the action is labelled criminal or civil. (In re Gault (1967) 387 U.S. 1, 87 S.Ct. 1428, 18 L.Ed.2d 527; Specht v. Patterson (1967) 386 U.S. 605, 608-610, 87 S.Ct. 1209, 18 L.Ed.2d 326.) For example, where the deprivation the defendant faces is significant and the facts are complex, due process has been held to include the right of an indigent defendant to appointed counsel in certain civil proceedings. (In re Love (1974) 11 Cal.3d 179, 186, 190-191, 113 Cal.Rptr. 89, 520 P.2d 713 (parole revocation); Cleaver v. Wilcox (9th Cir. 1974) 499 F.2d 940, 944-945 (juvenile dependency proceedings); see also Reynolds v. Kimmons (Alaska 1977) 569 P.2d 799 (paternity proceedings); Artibee v. Cheboygan Circuit Judge (1976) 397 Mich. 54, 243 N.W.2d 248 (paternity proceedings).)

The touchstone of due process is fundamental fairness. Whether due process requires the appointment of counsel in a particular case depends on the interests involved and the nature of the proceedings. (In re Love, supra, 11 Cal.3d at p. 190, fn. 11, 113 Cal.Rptr. 89, 520 P.2d 713; see also In re Jacqueline H. (1978) 21 Cal.3d 170, 175-177, 145 Cal.Rptr. 548, 577 P.2d 683.) 2 To determine the weight of appellants' claims to appointed counsel in the present cases, this court must examine the nature and magnitude of the interests involved, the possible consequences appellants face and the features which distinguish paternity proceedings from other civil proceedings. These factors must then be balanced against the state's interests.

The cases before this court involve more than monetary judgments. They were brought under statutory authority to declare the existence of the most basic biological relationship, that of parent and child. (Welf. & Inst.Code, §§ 11350.1, 11475.1; Civ.Code, §§ 7001, 7006; cf. Boddie v. Connecticut, supra, 401 U.S. at p. 383, 91 S.Ct. 780.) A determination of paternity has grave implications for all concerned the alleged father, the child, the mother and the state. This court has termed the interest in maintaining a parent-child relationship "a compelling one, ranked among the most basic of civil rights . . . ." (In re B.G. (1974) 11 Cal.3d 679, 688, 114 Cal.Rptr. 444, 450, 523 P.2d 244, 250; Cleaver v. Wilcox, supra, 499 F.2d at p. 945.) Freedom from an incorrect imposition of that relationship on either a parent or a child is an equally compelling interest.

An adjudication of paternity may profoundly affect a person's life. It may disrupt an established family and damage reputations. Further, a court's determination of paternity exposes a defendant to deprivation of property and, potentially, liberty. It entails the obligation to support and educate a child (Civ.Code, §§ 196a, 7012), an obligation that does not end at the child's age of majority. (Civ.Code, § 206.) 3 Moreover, a child support order is more freely enforceable by garnishment than an ordinary civil judgment (15 U.S.C. § 1673(b)(1); Int.Rev.Code, § 6103(l)(6); Code Civ.Proc., § 690.6), and is not dischargeable in bankruptcy (11 U.S.C. § 35(a)(7)). Also, the failure to pay child support may be enforced through the civil contempt power (Civ.Code, § 7012), as well as the Uniform Civil...

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