(Page 2 of 2)
The State argues that the licensee's interest in avoiding the suspension of his licenses is outweighed by countervailing governmental interests and therefore that this procedural due process need not be afforded him. We disagree. In cases where there is no reasonable possibility of a judgment being rendered against a licensee, Georgia's interest in protecting a claimant from the possibility of an unrecoverable judgment is not, within the context of the State's fault-oriented scheme, a justification for denying the process due its citizens. Nor is additional expense occasioned by the expanded hearing sufficient to withstand the constitutional requirement. " `While the problem of additional expense must be kept [402 U.S. 535, 541] in mind, it does not justify denying a hearing meeting the ordinary standards of due process.'" Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S., at 261 , quoting Kelly v. Wyman, 294 F. Supp. 893, 901 (SDNY 1968).
The main thrust of Georgia's argument is that it need not provide a hearing on liability because fault and liability are irrelevant to the statutory scheme. We may assume that were this so, the prior administrative hearing presently provided by the State would be "appropriate to the nature of the case." Mullane v. Central Hanover Bank & Trust Co., 339 U.S. 306, 313 (1950). But "in reviewing state action in this area . . . we look to substance, not to bare form, to determine whether constitutional minimums have been honored." Willner v. Committee on Character, 373 U.S. 96, 106 -107 (1963) (concurring opinion). And looking to the operation of the State's statutory scheme, it is clear that liability, in the sense of an ultimate judicial determination of responsibility, plays a crucial role in the Safety Responsibility Act. If prior to suspension there is a release from liability executed by the injured party, no suspension is worked by the Act. Ga. Code Ann. 92A-606 (1958). The same is true if prior to suspension there is an adjudication of nonliability. Ibid. Even after suspension has been declared, a release from liability or an adjudication of nonliability will lift the suspension. Ga. Code Ann. 92A-607 (Supp. 1970). Moreover, other of the Act's exceptions are developed around liability-related concepts. Thus, we are not dealing here with a no-fault scheme. Since the statutory scheme makes liability an important factor in the State's determination to deprive an individual of his licenses, the State may not, consistently with due process, eliminate consideration of that factor in its prior hearing.
The hearing required by the Due Process Clause must be "meaningful," Armstrong v. Manzo, 380 U.S. 545 , [402 U.S. 535, 542] 552 (1965), and "appropriate to the nature of the case." Mullane v. Central Hanover Bank & Trust Co., supra, at 313. It is a proposition which hardly seems to need explication that a hearing which excludes consideration of an element essential to the decision whether licenses of the nature here involved shall be suspended does not meet this standard.
Finally, we reject Georgia's argument that if it must afford the licensee an inquiry into the question of liability, that determination, unlike the determination of the matters presently considered at the administrative hearing, need not be made prior to the suspension of the licenses. While "[m]any controversies have raged about . . . the Due Process Clause," ibid., it is fundamental that except in emergency situations (and this is not one)[fn5] due process requires that when a State seeks to terminate an interest such as that here involved, it must afford "notice and opportunity for hearing appropriate to the nature of the case" before the termination becomes effective. Ibid. Opp Cotton Mills v. Administrator, 312 U.S., at 152 -156; Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp., supra; Goldberg v. Kelly, supra; Wisconsin v. Constantineau, 400 U.S. 433 (1971).
We hold, then, that under Georgia's present statutory scheme, before the State may deprive petitioner of his driver's license and vehicle registration it must provide a forum for the determination of the question whether there is a reasonable possibility of a judgment being rendered against him as a result of the accident. We deem it inappropriate in this case to do more than lay down this requirement. The alternative methods of compliance are several. Georgia may decide merely to include consideration of the question at the administrative [402 U.S. 535, 543] hearing now provided, or it may elect to postpone such a consideration to the de novo judicial proceedings in the Superior Court. Georgia may decide to withhold suspension until adjudication of an action for damages brought by the injured party. Indeed, Georgia may elect to abandon its present scheme completely and pursue one of the various alternatives in force in other States.[fn6] Finally, Georgia may reject all of the above and devise an entirely new regulatory scheme. The area of choice is wide: we hold only that the failure of the present Georgia scheme to afford the petitioner a prior hearing on liability of the nature we have defined denied him procedural due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The judgment is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
THE CHIEF JUSTICE, MR. JUSTICE BLACK, and MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN concur in the result.
Return to Supreme Court Decisions
Previous | Page 2 of 2 | Next