The U.S. Supreme Court has found no automatic right to counsel for indigent civil defendants facing jail time, though it ruled on behalf of a father who served a year in prison for failing to pay child support.

The father, Michael Turner, was deprived of his 14th Amendment right to due process, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision.

Free lawyers aren’t required in such situations, but states must have procedural safeguards in place to help determine whether the parent is able to comply with the support order, according to the majority opinion (PDF) by Justice Stephen G. Breyer.

Turner had told the trial judge who sentenced him to prison that he was unable to pay because “dope had a hold to me” until he broke his back and was laid up for two months. “And, now I’m off the dope and everything,” he told the court. “I just hope that you give me a chance.”

The judge sentenced Turner to a year in jail without making an express finding about his ability to pay. Turner’s appeal, brought with the help of a pro bono lawyer, argued he had the right to counsel at his contempt hearing.

Breyer’s opinion found that Turner did not get due process in his case, but said a lawyer was not an automatic requirement.

The 14th Amendment’s due process clause allows a state to provide fewer procedural protections to civil contempt defendants than in a criminal case, which is governed by the Sixth Amendment, Breyer said. He noted that both parties in a child support case are often unrepresented by lawyers, and providing a lawyer to just the noncustodial parent “could create an asymmetry of representation” altering significantly the nature of the proceeding.

He also noted the argument of the Solicitor General that alternate procedural safeguards can help reduce the risk of wrongful incarceration. They include: notice that ability to pay is a critical issue, the use of a form to elicit financial information, an opportunity for the defendant to answer questions about his financial status, and an express finding by the court on ability to pay.

Breyer said his opinion does not address a situation where child support is owed to the state, possibly as reimbursement of welfare payments to the parent with custody. Nor does the opinion address the due-process requirement for counsel in a particularly complex case.

Four dissenting justices agreed there is no right to appointed counsel for indigent defendants facing incarceration in civil contempt proceedings. They would not have reached the issue of the need for alternative procedural safeguards.

The ABA had argued in an amicus brief that poor people should have the right to a lawyer in civil contempt proceedings carrying a threat of jail time. The case is Turner v. Rogers.

 

Hat tip to Debra Cassens Weiss for this June 20, 2011 post to the ABA Journal

 

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Photo of Michelle O'Neil Michelle O'Neil

Michelle May O’Neil has 27 years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes…

Michelle May O’Neil has 27 years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes genuine compassion for her client’s difficulties, yet she can be relentless when in pursuit of a client’s goals. One judge said of Ms. O’Neil, “She cannot be out-gunned, out-briefed, or out-lawyered!”

Family Law Specialist

Ms. O’Neil became a board-certified family law specialist by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in 1997 and has maintained her certification since that time. While representing clients in litigation before the trial court is an important part of her practice, Ms. O’Neil also handles appellate matters in the trial court, courts of appeals and Texas Supreme Court. Lawyers frequently consult with Ms. O’Neil on their litigation cases about specialized legal issues requiring particularized attention both at the trial court and appellate levels. This gives her a unique perspective and depth of perception that benefits both her litigation and appellate clients.

Top Lawyers in Texas and America

Ms. O’Neil has been named to the list of Texas SuperLawyers for many years, 2011-2018, a peer-voted honor given to only about 5% of the lawyers in the state of Texas. In 2014-2018, Ms. O’Neil received the special honor of being named by Texas SuperLawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Texas, Top 100 Lawyers in Texas, and Top 100 Lawyers in DFW. She was named one of the Best Lawyers in America for 2016 and received an “A-V” peer review rating by Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directories for the highest quality legal ability and ethical standards.

Author and Speaker

A noted author, Ms. O’Neil released her second book Basics of Texas Divorce Law in November 2010, with a second edition released in 2013, and a third edition expected in 2015.  Her first book, All About Texas Law and Kids, was published in September 2009 by Texas Lawyer Press. In 2012, Ms. O’Neil co-authored the booklets What You Need To Know About Common Law Marriage In Texas and Social Study Evaluations.  The State Bar of Texas and other providers of continuing education for attorneys frequently enlist Ms. O’Neil to provide instruction to attorneys on topics of her expertise in the family law arena.