|Bowen v. Roy
[ Burger ]
[ Blackmun ]
[ Stevens ]
[ O'Connor ]
[ White ]
Bowen v. Roy
APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
JUSTICE STEVENS, concurring in part and concurring in the result.
Members of the Abenaki Indian Tribe are unquestionably entitled to the same constitutional protection against governmental action "prohibiting the free exercise" of their religion as are the adherents of other faiths. [n1] Our respect for the sincerity of their religious beliefs does not, however, relieve us from the duty to identify the precise character of the two quite different claims that the parents of Little Bird of the Snow have advanced. They claim, first, that they are entitled to an injunction preventing the Government from making any use of a Social Security number assigned to Little Bird of the Snow, and second, that they are entitled to receive a full allowance of food stamps and cash assistance for Little Bird of the Snow without providing a Social Security number for her.
As the Court holds in Part II of its opinion, which I join, the first claim must fail because the Free Exercise Clause [p717] does not give an individual the right to dictate the Government's method of recordkeeping. The second claim, I submit, is either moot or not ripe for decision.
In order to understand the precise nature and current posture of appellees' claims, it is necessary to emphasize an extremely unusual feature of this case. At the outset of the litigation, the parties assumed -- indeed, they stipulated to -- a critical fact that was discovered to be inaccurate on the last day of the trial. Although the parties believed that Little Bird of the Snow did not have a Social Security number, the District Court found, and the parties now agree, that she has had a Social Security number since birth. The contrary belief had been central to the parties' perception of the litigation, and to the requested relief. It is thus also central to the state of the record as we find it.
At the state agency administrative hearing on the threatened withdrawal of certain benefits, the issue had been framed as whether to affirm a decision
determining the appellant's daughter, Little Bird of the Snow, ineligible for public assistance and Medical Assistance because the appellant would not apply for a Social Security Number for her. [n2]
In their complaint, Little Bird's parents alleged that "[t]he sole basis" for the denial of welfare benefits was "Mr. Roy's refusal to obtain a Social Security Number for Little Bird of the Snow," [n3] and thus requested injunctive relief, damages, and benefits. In the statement of "undisputed facts," the parties stipulated that Little Bird of the Snow did not have a Social Security number. [n4] In the District Court's opinion [p718] denying summary judgment, the court began its opinion by observing that Roy and Miller
have refused to obtain a Social Security number for their two-year-old daughter, Little Bird of the Snow, on the ground that doing so would be contrary to their Native Abenaki Indian religious beliefs. [n5]
At trial, Roy's counsel introduced his case by emphasizing that Little Bird of the Snow, unlike the other members of the family, did not have a Social Security number, and thus had not been exposed to the evil that the number represents. [n6] In Roy's own testimony, he emphasized the evil that would flow from obtaining a number. [n7] On the last day of trial, however, in response to questions, a federal official inquired, during a court recess, whether Little Bird of the Snow already had a Social Security number, and discovered that she had been assigned a Social Security number at birth. [n8]
This discovery had a dramatic impact on the litigation, and on the judgment under review. Because there was no longer any apparent basis for the dispute, the Government [p719] suggested that the case had become moot. [n9] Roy, however, responded to the discovery by changing his request for relief and asking for a cancellation of the existing number. [n10]
Concluding that the discovery did not moot the case, [n11] the District Court denied the request for damages and benefits, but granted injunctive relief. The injunction -- the judgment that we are considering -- contains two basic components. First, the Secretary of Health and Human Services is
permanently restrained from making any use of the social security number which was issued in the name of Little Bird of the Snow Roy and from disseminating the number to any agency, individual, business entity, or any other third party. [n12]
Second, the federal and state defendants are enjoined until Little Bird of the Snow's 16th birthday from denying Roy cash assistance, medical assistance, and food stamps "because of the Plaintiffs' refusal to provide a social security number for her." [n13] Of course, if the injunction preventing the Secretary from making use of the already existing number had not been granted, there would have been no apparent impediment to providing the benefits that had previously been denied.
As the case comes to us, the first question to be decided is whether the District Court erred in effectively canceling the number that had already been issued for Little Bird of the Snow, and that established the appellees' eligibility for the benefits in dispute. The Court correctly holds that the District [p720] Court did err, and that
the portion of the District Court's injunction that permanently restrained the Secretary from making any use of the Social Security number that had been issued in the name of Little Bird of the Snow Roy must be vacated.
Ante at 701. Having so held, however, the Court should pause to consider whether any other constitutional issue need be addressed. For, as the Court demonstrates, an objection to the Government's use of a Social Security number, and a possible objection to "providing" the number when the Government already has it, pose very different constitutional problems.
Once we vacate the injunction preventing the Government from making routine use of the number that has already been assigned to Little Bird of the Snow, there is nothing disclosed by the record to prevent the appellees from receiving the payments that are in dispute. Indeed, since the Government itself suggested to the District Court that the case had become moot as soon as it was learned that a Social Security number already existed, it is obvious that the Government perceives no difficulty in making the requested payments in the future. The only issue that prevented the case from becoming moot was the claim asserted by Roy that he was entitled to an injunction that effectively canceled the existing number. Since that issue has now been resolved, nothing remains of the case.
Neither Roy nor the Government has pointed to anything in the record suggesting that Roy will be under any further obligation to "provide" a Social Security number for Little Bird of the Snow. Even if one makes the unsupported assumption that Roy may object to filing certain forms in the future, there is a conspicuous lack of evidence and findings concerning the extent to which such requirements might impose a burden either on Roy or on any other person who finds difficulty in providing information on pertinent forms. [p721]
The absence of this information in the record is significant. Current regulations suggest that assistance for such difficulties may well be available in the programs at issue, [n14] particularly for those with mental, physical, and linguistic handicaps that prevent completion of the required forms, [n15] or other required steps in the application process. [n16] To the extent that [p722] other food stamp and welfare applicants are, in fact, offered exceptions and special assistance in response to their inability to "provide" required information, it would seem that a religious inability should be given no less deference. For our recent free exercise cases suggest that religious claims should not be disadvantaged in relation to other claims. [n17]
These considerations highlight the fact that, if this case is not moot, it surely is not ripe. The case, as litigated, simply bears no resemblance to the currently abstract question about what the Government may require if it seeks a Social Security number that it already has.
Consistent with our longstanding principles of constitutional adjudication, we should decide nothing more than is actually necessary to dispose of the precise dispute before the Court, [n18] and nothing more than is fairly presented by the [p723] record and the factual findings. [n19] Because the District Court has not made findings about the extent to which other exceptions and assistance are available for those who cannot, or do not, "provide" required information, and because there is nothing in the record to suggest that the Government will not pay the benefits in dispute as soon as the District Court's injunction against the use of the number has been vacated, I concur in the judgment vacating the remainder of the injunction. No matter how interesting, or how clear their answers may appear to be, however, I would not address the hypothetical questions debated by THE CHIEF JUSTICE and JUSTICE O'CONNOR, because they are not properly presented by the record in this case. [n20] [p724]
1. The First Amendment provides:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . .
2. Department of Public Welfare Adjudication, Complaint, Ex. A, p. 2.
3. Complaint ¶ 11.
4. Statement of Undisputed Facts ¶ 6, App. 13 ("With the exception of Little Bird of the Snow, [the members of the Roy family] all have Social Security Numbers"); ¶ 20, App. 14 ("The sole basis for these actions [the reduction of AFDC and medical assistance] was Mr. Roy's refusal to obtain a Social Security Number for Little Bird of the Snow").
5. App. to Juris. Statement 27a.
6. See App. 52-53 ("Mr. Roy has a Social Security number, as does his eldest daughter, Renee; but, as Mr. Roy will explain, the number was obtained before he became aware of what he perceives as a potential for evil of these numbers; and he will tell you that, once that number is provided, the evil is done, and continuing to do so has no further effect; but with respect to Little Bird of the Snow, he simply cannot do so").
[Q.] Mr. Roy, could you explain why obtaining a Social Security Number for Little Bird of the Snow would be contrary to your religious beliefs as a native Abenaki?
A. Yes. Because we felt that this number would be used to rob her of her ability to have greater power in that this number is a unique number. It serves unique purposes. It's applied to her and only her; and being applied to her, that's what offends us, and we try to keep her person unique, and we try to keep her spirit unique, and we're scared that, if we were to use this number, she would lose control of that, and she would have no ability to protect herself from any evil that that number might be used against her.
Id. at 85.
8. Id. at 442-443.
9. See id. at 514-515 (argument of Deputy Attorney General of Pennsylvania); id. at 521 (argument of Attorney for United States Dept. of Justice); Record, Doc. No. 68, p. 2 (federal defendants' motion to dismiss).
10. Record, Doc. No. 65, pp. 2-3.
11. See Roy v. Cohen, 590 F.Supp. 600, 605 (MD Pa.1984) (finding of fact 33) ("Roy believes that the establishment of a social security number for Little Bird of the Snow, without more, has not ‘robbed her spirit,' but widespread use of the social security number by the federal or state governments in their computer systems would have that effect").
12. App. to Juris. Statement 24a.
13. Id. at 25a.
14. See, e.g., 7 CFR § 273.2(c)(1) (1986) ("The household shall be advised that it . . . may file an incomplete application form as long as the form contains the applicant's name and address and is signed by a responsible member of the household or the household's authorized representative").
15. See 7 CFR § 282.17(c)(3)(v) (1985) ("Households which require special assistance in order to apply for food stamps if that special assistance will not be available for completing the monthly reports. Special assistance shall include authorized representatives to complete monthly reports, home visits or telephone reporting in lieu of the report form. Such households may be comprised of blind, mentally or physically disabled persons, persons whose reading and writing skills are so limited that they cannot complete monthly reports on their own, or non-English speaking persons residing in project areas where the bilingual requirement of § 272.4(c) do not apply").
16. See 7 CFR § 273.2(e)(2) (1985) ("The office interview shall be waived if requested by any household which is unable to appoint an authorized representative and which has no household members able to come to the food stamp office because they are 65 years of age or older, or are mentally or physically handicapped"); ibid; ("The State agency shall waive the office interview on a case-by-case basis for any household which is unable to appoint an authorized representative and which has no household members able to come to the food stamp office because of transportation difficulties or similar hardships which the State agency determines warrants a waiver of the office interview. These hardship conditions include, but are not limited to: illness, care of a household member, prolonged severe weather, or work hours which preclude in-office interview").
Indeed, the regulations suggest that there may be a limited exception to the Social Security number requirement itself. See 7 CFR § 273.6 (b)(2) (1985) ("For those individuals required to provide an SSN who do not have one, the State agency shall act as follows. . . . If an individual applies through the State agency, the State agency shall complete the application for an SSN, Form SS-5"); 50 Fed.Reg. 10469 (1985) (proposed 7 CFR § 273.6(d)) ("In determining if good cause exists for failure to comply with the requirement to apply for or provide the State agency with an SSN, the State agency shall consider information from the household member, the Social Security Administration, and the State agency. . . . Good cause does not include delays due to illness, lack of transportation or temporary absences, because SSA makes provisions for mail-in applications in lieu of applying in person. . . . If the household member(s) applying for an SSN has been unable to obtain the documents required by SSA, the State agency caseworker should make every effort to assist the individual(s) in obtaining these documents").
17. In Thomas v. Review Bd. of Indiana Employment Security Div., 450 U.S. 707 (1981), and Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963), the granting of a religious exemption was necessary to prevent the treatment of religious claims less favorably than other claims. See United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252, 264, n. 3 (1982) (STEVENS, J., concurring in judgment) (In Thomas and Sherbert, "the treatment of the religious objection to the new job requirements as though it were tantamount to a physical impairment that made it impossible for the employee to continue to work under changed circumstances could be viewed as a protection against unequal treatment, rather than a grant of favored treatment for the members of the religious sect").
18. See Rescue Army v. Municipal Court, 331 U.S. 549, 569 (1947) ("[C]onstitutional issues affecting legislation will not be determined . . . in broader terms than are required by the precise facts to which the ruling is to be applied"); Coffman v. Breeze Corp., 323 U.S. 316, 324-325 (1945) ("[T]he Court will not pass upon the constitutionality of legislation . . . until it is necessary to do so to preserve the rights of the parties"); Liverpool, New York and Philadelphia S.S. Co. v. Commissioners of Emigration, 113 U.S. 33, 39 (1885) (This Court "is bound by two rules, to which it has rigidly adhered, one, never to anticipate a question of constitutional law in advance of the necessity of deciding it; the other, never to formulate a rule of constitutional law broader than is required by the precise facts to which it is applied").
19. See Bender v. Williamsport Area School Dist., 475 U.S. 534, 542, n. 5 (1986) ("We have frequently recognized the importance of the facts and the fact-finding process in constitutional adjudication"); Minnick v. California Dept. of Corrections, 452 U.S. 105, 123 (1981) ("In this case, our analysis of the question whether the federal constitutional issues may be affected by additional proceedings in the state courts . . . is . . . affected by ambiguities in the record"); England v. Louisiana Board of Medical Examiners, 375 U.S. 411, 416 (1964) ("How the facts are found will often dictate the decision of federal claims"); Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S. 293, 312 (1963) ("It is the typical, not the rare, case in which constitutional claims turn upon the resolution of contested factual issues"); Wiener v. United States, 357 U.S. 349, 352 (1958) ("The versatility of circumstances often mocks a natural desire for definitiveness"); Hammond v. Schappi Bus Line, 275 U.S. 164, 171-172 (1927) ("Before any of the questions suggested, which are both novel and of far-reaching importance, are passed upon by this Court, the facts essential to their decision should be definitely found by the lower courts upon adequate evidence").
20. Curiously, in explaining why they discourse at length on constitutional questions, THE CHIEF JUSTICE and JUSTICE O'CONNOR appear to rely on different factual assumptions. Compare ante at 702, n. 7 (BURGER, C.J.) (The "Government undoubtedly would be happy to ‘supply' the number for appellees -- i.e., fill the number in on their applications -- if this is what they wanted"), with post at 725 (O'CONNOR, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) ("The Government still refuses to concede that it should now provide welfare benefits to Little Bird of the Snow, even though it now claims to possess Little Bird of the Snow's Social Security number"). It is, of course, an elementary principle of judicial restraint that uncertainty about the facts should prevent unnecessary constitutional disquisitions.