January 10, 1973 – The U.S. Supreme Court Decides United States v. Kras

On this day in history, the Supreme Court decided the question of whether an individual has a constitutional right to a bankruptcy discharge without paying the required filing fees. Kras had claimed he was simply too poor; he had no job and had children, one of whom had cystic fibrosis.

Justice Blackmun held for the 5-4 majority in United States v. Kras 409 U.S. 434 (1973) “There is no constitutional right to obtain a discharge of one’s debts in bankruptcy,” and Robert Kras was ordered to pay a $50 filing fee. He noted that the weekly payments of the fee amount to $1.28 and if the discharge would help Mr. Kras find a job, he should be able to pay that amount.

In an impassioned dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall took exception to the justices’ lack of appreciation of monetary difficulties for those who are impoverished. Marshall wrote:

I cannot agree with the majority that it is so easy for the desperately poor to save $1.92 each week over the course of six months. The 1970 Census found that over 800,000 families in the Nation had annual incomes of less than $1,000 or $19.23 a week. [U.S. Bureau of Census, Current Population Reports, series P-60, No. 80; U.S. Bureau of Census, Statistical
Abstract of the United States 1972, p. 323.] I see no reason to require that families in such straits sacrifice over 5% of their annual income as a prerequisite to getting a discharge in bankruptcy.

It may be easy for some people to think that weekly savings of less than $2 are no burden. But no one who has had close contact with poor people can fail to understand how close to the margin of survival many of them are. A sudden illness, for example, may destroy whatever savings they may have accumulated, and, by eliminating a sense of security, may destroy the incentive to save in the future. A pack or two of cigarettes may be, for them, not a routine purchase, but a luxury indulged in only rarely. The desperately poor almost never go to see a movie, which the majority seems to believe is an almost weekly activity. They have more important things to do with what little money they have — like attempting to provide some comforts for a gravely ill child, as Kras must do.

It is perfectly proper for judges to disagree about what the Constitution requires. But it is disgraceful for an interpretation of the Constitution to be premised upon unfounded assumptions about how people live.”

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall

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