Decision: In a partial victory for indigent parents, the Supreme Court held on June 20, 2011 that the year-long incarceration of a South Carolina man for failure to pay child support violated the Constitution because adequate safeguards had not been in place to ensure that his failure to pay was willful. However, the Court also ruled that indigent parents did not have a categorical right to a court-appointed defense attorney in hearings to enforce child support orders when the party on the other side is unrepresented.
Background: The case, Turner v. Rogers, involved an appeal of an order finding Michael Turner in civil contempt because of his failure to pay child support. At the hearing, Turner was unrepresented by counsel and attempted to explain to the judge why he could not pay his debt. The judge did not make any finding as to Turner’s ability to pay the arrears but nonetheless ordered Turner to serve a year in prison.
The Brennan Center, along with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Southern Center for Human Rights, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in support of Mr. Turner on January 12, 2011. Our brief provided evidence that indigent non-custodial parents held in contempt of court often have legitimate defenses for failing to pay child support, but are unequipped to make some such claims on their own. Providing counsel in such proceedings is essential to preventing wrongful incarceration.
Procedural history: After denying Mr. Turner a lawyer at his child support enforcement proceeding, a South Carolina Family Court judge sentenced him to a year in jail. Mr. Turner challenged his incarceration on appeal to the South Carolina Supreme Court, which ruled against him in March 2010. He then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of South Carolina’s decision. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in November 2010 and heard arguments on March 23, 2011. The court issued an opinion on June 20, 2011.
Question presented: Whether an indigent defendant has a constitutional right to appointed counsel at a civil contempt proceeding that results in his or her incarceration.