Court: Dads Don’t Have Right To A Lawyer In Child Support Contempt Cases
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Michael Turner, jailed for a year because he could not pay child support, was deprived of his 14th Amendment right to due process.
However, the court also ruled indigent civil defendants facing jail time have no automatic right to counsel, according to the ABA Journal.
Turner is from South Carolina, one of a handful of states that jail indigent child support debtors without providing them legal counsel. He argued on appeal that all people facing jail time have a constitutional right to an attorney, even in civil contempt proceedings. (Watch the DadsDivorce.com interview about the “Save The Turnips” campaign to raise awareness of the epidemic of jailing fathers who are unable to pay child support.)
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, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the majority opinion.
Breyer noted that even though states don’t have to provide lawyers, “the state must nonetheless have in place alternative procedures that assure a fundamentally fair determination of the critical incarceration question.”
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.
“Under these circumstances, Turner’s incarceration violated the Due Process Clause,” Breyer said.
The Associated Press reports Breyer said Turner was never told his ability to pay was the crucial question at his civil contempt hearing, no one provided him with a form that would helped him disclose his financial information, and the state court never even officially determined whether Turner had the ability to pay the child support he owed.
That is one of the frequent issues challenging father’s rights: that most men who are behind on child support are not unwilling to pay, they are unable to pay. And yet courts across the country continue to jail fathers for their inability to pay.
The case now goes back to the South Carolina state courts. The case is Turner v. Rogers.
If you need help with a child support modification, contact the divorce lawyers for men at Cordell and Cordell.
Use the Child Support Calculator on DadsDivorce.com for an estimated amount of how much child support you should be paying.