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decided: June 30, 1982.



Powell, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and White, Rehnquist, Stevens, and O'connor, JJ., joined. Blackmun, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Brennan and Marshall, JJ., joined, post, p. 516.

Author: Powell

[ 458 U.S. Page 503]

 JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether the habeas corpus statute, 28 U. S. C. § 2254, confers jurisdiction on the federal courts to consider collateral challenges to state-court judgments involuntarily terminating parental rights.


The facts of this case are described in detail in In re William L., 477 Pa. 322, 383 A. 2d 1228, cert. denied sub nom.

[ 458 U.S. Page 504]

     declared that petitioner's parental rights respecting the three sons were terminated.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the termination order based on "parental incapacity, which does not involve parental misconduct." In re William L., supra, at 331, 383 A. 2d, at 1232. It held that the legislature's power to protect the physical and emotional needs of children authorized termination in the absence of serious harm or risk of serious harm to the children and in the absence of parental misconduct. The court stressed that, "[in] the instant cases, the basis for termination is several years of demonstrated parental incapacity . . . ." Ibid. It also held that the statute was not unconstitutionally vague either on its face or as applied.

Petitioner sought this Court's review in a petition for certiorari rather than by appeal.*fn5 We denied the petition. Lehman v. Lycoming County Children's Services, 439 U.S. 880 (1978). Petitioner then filed the instant proceeding on January 16, 1979, in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, seeking a writ of habeas corpus

[ 458 U.S. Page 506]

     pursuant to 28 U. S. C. §§ 2241 and 2254. Petitioner requested (i) a declaration of the invalidity of the Pennsylvania statute under which her parental rights were terminated; (ii) a declaration that petitioner was the legal parent of the children; and (iii) an order releasing the children to her custody unless within 60 days an appropriate state court judicially determined that the best interest of the children required that temporary custody remain with the State.

The District Court dismissed the petition without a hearing. Relying primarily on Sylvander v. New England Home for Little Wanderers, 584 F.2d 1103 (CA1 1978), the court concluded that "the custody maintained by the Respondent over the three Lehman children is not that type of custody to which the federal habeas corpus remedy may be addressed." Lehman v. Lycoming County Children's Services Agency, Civ. No. 79-65 (MD Pa. 1979), reprinted in App. to Pet. for Cert. 135a, 147a.

Sitting en banc, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court's order of dismissal by a divided vote of six to four. 648 F.2d 135 (1981). No majority opinion was written. A plurality of four, in an opinion written by Judge Garth, concluded that "disputes of the nature addressed here and which essentially involve no more than the question of who shall raise a child to maturity, do not implicate the federal interest in personal liberty sufficiently to warrant the extension of federal habeas corpus." Id., at 146. In support of this conclusion, Judge Garth reasoned that "[it] is not the liberty interest of the children that is sought to be protected in such a case, but only the right of the particular parent to raise them." Id., at 140 (footnote omitted).

A second plurality of four, in an opinion written by Judge Adams wrote that it "would appear to be both unwise and impolitic for the federal courts to uncover a whole new font of jurisdiction. . . ." Id., at 151. He would have disposed of the case on the ground that Ms. Lehman did not have standing

[ 458 U.S. Page 507]

     to assert a habeas corpus action on behalf of her children. See id., at 151-155. This view was based on the conclusion that once a parent's rights have been terminated in a state proceeding, a parent is no longer presumed to represent the interest of the child. See id., at 153-154.*fn6

The question presented to this Court can be stated more fully as whether federal habeas corpus jurisdiction, under § 2254, may be invoked to challenge the constitutionality of a state statute under which a State has obtained custody of children and has terminated involuntarily the parental rights of their natural parent. As this is a question of importance not heretofore considered by this Court, and one over which the Circuits are divided,*fn7 we granted certiorari. 454 U.S. 813 (1981). We now affirm.

[ 458 U.S. Page 508]



Petitioner seeks habeas corpus collateral review by a federal court of the Pennsylvania decision. Her application was filed under 28 U. S. C. § 2254(a):

"The Supreme Court, a Justice thereof, a circuit judge, or a district court shall entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus in behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States."

Although the language of § 2254(a), especially in light of § 2241, suggests that habeas corpus is available only to challenge the convictions of prisoners actually in the physical custody of the State,*fn8 three modern cases have extended it to other situations involving challenges to state-court decisions.*fn9

[ 458 U.S. Page 509]

     The first of these cases is Jones v. Cunningham, 371 U.S. 236 (1963), in which the Court allowed a parolee to challenge his conviction by a habeas petition. The Court considered the parolee in "custody" for purposes of § 2254(b) because "the custody and control of the Parole Board involve significant restraints on petitioner's liberty . . . which are in addition to those imposed by the State upon the public generally." 371 U.S., at 242. And in Carafas v. LaVallee, 391 U.S. 234 (1968), the Court allowed the writ in a challenge to a state-court judgment even though the prisoner, incarcerated at the time the writ was filed, had finished serving his sentence during the proceedings. The custody requirement had, of course, been met at the time the writ was filed, and the case was not moot because Carafas was subject to "'collateral consequences'" as a result of his conviction, id., at 237, and "is suffering, and will continue to suffer, serious disabilities . . . ." Id., at 239. Most recently, in Hensley v. Municipal Court, 411 U.S. 345 (1973), the Court allowed the writ to be used to challenge a state-court conviction even though the defendant had been released on his own recognizance after ...

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