485 U. S. 478
April 19, 1988
In Oklahoma, once you die, the executor of the estate can publish a general notice of the death in a newspaper for two weeks. If creditors of the deceased do not step forward within two months of the notice, their claims are barred. A hospital wanted to be paid for a dead man’s medical costs, but it missed the notice, and was barred. The hospital said that the lack of actual notice violated the Due Process clause.
The Court ruled 8-1 that Oklahoma law did violate the Due Process clause. According to established law, creditors had a Due Process right to actual notice rather than publication notice when state action was involved. The dead man’s family said that there was no state action – they published the notice on their own accord, and the two month timeframe ran by itself. O’Connor, writing for the Court, disagreed. The probate court, a state actor, is very much involved. The probate court appoints the executor, and asks for copies of the publication notice. Because of this level of state action, actual notice was required for creditors. O’Connor said that mail notice to reasonably ascertainable creditors would suffice, and that herculean efforts would not be expected.
Blackmun concurred in the result without comment. But Rehnquist dissented, and actually explained himself for once. The probate court’s involvement was so minimal and perfunctory that the proceeding really ought to be considered private rather than state action. Because private action did not require actual notice to creditors, the Oklahoma law was sound. I’m not sure who was right. This was a close call, and in any event I’m glad O’Connor included the limiting words at the end that over-the-top efforts were not Constitutionally mandated.