Wyman v. James, 400 U.S. 309 (1971)

2012-09-27 23:54:31

When welfare rights activists wrote out their national agenda in the 1960s, putting a stop to unannounced home visits by government social workers was near the top of the list. Federal law did not require such visits, but many local jurisdictions conducted them, ostensibly to protect children from abuse and to monitor welfare fraud. California went so far as to sponsor early-morning mass raids upon welfare recipients’ homes.

In contrast, New York City’s practice, reviewed by the Supreme Court in Wyman v. James, was relatively mild. On May 8, 1969, Barbara James, a welfare recipient, received a letter indicating that a caseworker would visit her home a few days later. James phoned the worker to refuse access to her home, although she offered to arrange for a meeting elsewhere. When James continued to refuse access, New York City initiated proceedings to terminate her welfare payments.

Assisted by legal services lawyers, James challenged the termination as a violation of her Fourth Amendment right to be free of illegal search. The Supreme Court’s six-to-three majority opinion, the first written by newly appointed Justice Harry A. Blackmun, upheld the City’s position that the visit was not forced, since James could simply decline welfare altogether rather than submit to the inspections. The Court concluded that the government could use such warrantless searches to ensure that its welfare funds were being appropriately spent. In adopting this approach, the majority distanced itself from the Court’s recent decision in Goldberg v Kelly (1970), which analogized welfare rights to property rights, thereby according welfare recipients greater control over their benefits. Unannounced home visits remain a part of welfare administration in some jurisdictions, and Wyman has also been cited to support sweeps of public housing and drug testing of welfare recipients.


References and Further Reading

  • Burt, Robert A., Forcing Protection on Children and Their Parents: The Impact of Wyman v. James, Michigan Law Review 69 (1971): 1259–1310.
  • Greenhouse, Linda, Becoming Justice Blackmun. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2005.
  • Wasby, Stephen L., Justice Blackmun and Criminal Justice: A Modest Overview, Akron Law Review 28 (1995): 125–186.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254 (1970)

See also Dandridge v. Williams, 397 U.S. 471 (1970); Privacy