CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF WISCONSIN.
Warren, Black, Douglas, Harlan, Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall
MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.
Respondents instituted a garnishment action against petitioner as defendant and Miller Harris Instrument Co., her employer, as garnishee. The complaint alleged
a claim of $420 on a promissory note. The garnishee filed its answer stating it had wages of $63.18 under its control earned by petitioner and unpaid, and that it would pay one-half to petitioner as a subsistence allowance*fn1 and hold the other half subject to the order of the court.
Petitioner moved that the garnishment proceedings be dismissed for failure to satisfy the due process requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Wisconsin Supreme Court sustained the lower state court in approving the procedure. 37 Wis. 2d 163, 154 N. W. 2d 259. The case is here on a petition for a writ of certiorari. 393 U.S. 1078.
The Wisconsin statute gives a plaintiff 10 days in which to serve the summons and complaint on the defendant after service on the garnishee.*fn2 In this case petitioner was served the same day as the garnishee. She nonetheless claims that the Wisconsin garnishment procedure violates that due process required by the Fourteenth Amendment, in that notice and an opportunity to be heard are not given before the in rem seizure of the wages. What happens in Wisconsin is that the clerk of the court issues the summons at the request of the creditor's lawyer; and it is the latter who by serving the garnishee sets in motion the machinery whereby the
wages are frozen.*fn3 They may, it is true, be unfrozen if the trial of the main suit is ever had and the wage earner wins on the merits. But in the interim the wage earner is deprived of his enjoyment of earned wages without any opportunity to be heard and to tender any defense he may have, whether it be fraud or otherwise.
Such summary procedure may well meet the requirements of due process in extraordinary situations. Cf. Fahey v. Mallonee, 332 U.S. 245, 253-254; Ewing v. Mytinger & Casselberry, Inc., 339 U.S. 594, 598-600; Ownbey v. Morgan, 256 U.S. 94, 110-112; Coffin Bros. v. Bennett, 277 U.S. 29, 31. But in the present case no situation requiring special protection to a state or creditor interest is presented by the facts; nor is the Wisconsin statute narrowly drawn to meet any such unusual condition. Petitioner was a resident of this Wisconsin community and in personam jurisdiction was readily obtainable.
The question is not whether the Wisconsin law is a wise law or unwise law. Our concern is not what philosophy Wisconsin should or should not embrace. See Green v. Frazier, 253 U.S. 233. We do not sit as a super-legislative body. In this case the sole question is whether there has been a taking of property without that procedural due process that is required by the Fourteenth Amendment. We have dealt over and over again with the question of what constitutes "the right to be heard" (Schroeder v. New York, 371 U.S. 208, 212) within the meaning of procedural due process. See Mullane v. Central Hanover Trust Co., 339 U.S. 306, 314. In the latter case we said that the right to be heard "has little reality or worth unless one is informed that the matter is pending and can choose for himself whether
to appear or default, acquiesce or contest." 339 U.S., at 314. In the context of this case the question is whether the interim freezing of the wages without a chance to be heard violates procedural due process.
A procedural rule that may satisfy due process for attachments in general, see McKay v. McInnes, 279 U.S. 820, does not necessarily satisfy procedural due process in every case. The fact that a procedure would pass muster under a feudal regime does not mean it gives necessary protection to all property in its modern forms. We deal here with wages -- a specialized type of property presenting distinct problems in our economic system. We turn then to the nature of that property and problems of procedural due process.
A prejudgment garnishment of the Wisconsin type is a taking which may impose tremendous hardship on wage earners with families to support. Until a recent Act of Congress,*fn4 § 304 of which forbids discharge of employees on the ground that their wages have been garnished, garnishment often meant the loss of a job. Over and beyond that was the great drain on family income. As stated by Congressman Reuss:*fn5
"The idea of wage garnishment in advance of judgment, of trustee process, of wage attachment, or whatever it is called is a most inhuman doctrine. It compels the wage earner, trying to keep his family together, to be driven below the poverty level."
Recent investigations of the problem have disclosed the grave injustices made possible by prejudgment garnishment whereby the sole opportunity to be heard comes after the taking. Congressman Sullivan, Chairman of
the House Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs who held extensive hearings on this and related problems stated:
"What we know from our study of this problem is that in a vast number of cases the debt is a fraudulent one, saddled on a poor ignorant person who is trapped in an easy credit nightmare, in which he is charged double for something he could not pay for even if the proper price was called for, and then hounded into giving up his pound of flesh, and being fired besides." 114 Cong. Rec. 1832.
The leverage of the creditor on the wage earner is enormous. The creditor tenders not only the original debt but the "collection fees" incurred by his ...