High Court Urges Civil Contempt Safeguards

     (CN) – Defendants in civil contempt proceedings do not have a constitutional right to government-paid counsel, but the states must have a way to determine if a parent is able to comply with child-support orders before incarcerating that parent for failure to make payments, the divided Supreme Court ruled Monday.

     A South Carolina family court ordered Michael Turner in 2003 to pay Rebecca Rogers about $50 a week in child support. By 2006, the court held Turner in contempt five times for failure to make those payments, and he ultimately served six months in prison under the state’s civil contempt statutes.
     Turner fell behind in payments again when he got out of prison, owing more than $5,700 when he appeared for a January 2008 civil contempt hearing. He explained to the judge that he missed payments because of a dope problem, but claimed that he straightened himself out and wanted another chance.
     The judge instead sentenced Turner to 12 months behind bars, though he “made no express finding concerning Turner’s ability to pay his arrearage,” according to the Supreme Court.
     Turner appealed the sentence with the aid of a pro bono attorney, claiming he had a constitutional right to counsel at the contempt hearing. The South Carolina Supreme Court rejected that claim, noting that defendants in civil contempt hearings are not entitled to the same safeguards offered for criminal proceedings.
     On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that Turner was not automatically entitled to counsel. Though it may be possible for some defendants to claim that right, the justices pointed out that Turner’s ex, Rogers, also appeared at the hearing without a lawyer. Ultimately, however, the court vacated the prior decision in the case because the trial court violated Turner’s due process by failing to establish that he could pay his child-support debt.
     Though Turner already finished the sentence, the justices found that the case was not moot since Turner has continually missed payments and is currently more than $13,800 in arrears.
     “The record indicates that Turner received neither counsel nor the benefit of alternative procedures like those we have described,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority. “He did not receive clear notice that his ability to pay would constitute the critical question in his civil contempt proceeding. No one provided him with a form (or the equivalent) designed to elicit information about his financial circumstances. The court did not find that Turner was able to pay his arrearage, but instead left the relevant ‘finding’ section of the contempt order blank. The court nonetheless found Turner in contempt and ordered him incarcerated. Under these circumstances Turner’s incarceration violated the Due Process Clause.”
     Justice Clarence Thomas authored a dissenting opinion, saying he would affirm the decision to toss Turner’s suit on the basis of the right-to-counsel claims alone.
     “Although the Court agrees that appointed counsel was not required in this case, it nevertheless vacates the judgment of the South Carolina Supreme Court on a different ground, which the parties have never raised,” Thomas wrote, in an opinion joined in full by Justice Antonin Scalia and in part by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. “Solely at the invitation of the United States as amicus curiae, the majority decides that Turner’s contempt proceeding violated due process because it did not include ‘alternative procedural safeguards.’ Consistent with this Court’s longstanding practice, I would not reach that question.”

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