Supreme Court Takes a Step Closer to Debtors’ Prison

Wednesday, June 22, 2011
States are not obligated to provide free legal counsel in civil courts when it comes to child support cases, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week, setting off cries from civil rights groups that said the decision could move the country closer towards creating debtors prisons.
In the case of Michael Turner of South Carolina, the Supreme Court ruled (5-4) that the father’s rights were violated because he was not given free counsel. However, in its ruling the court also said state governments are not required to provide counsel in all civil contempt cases.
Turner was originally ordered to pay $51.73 a week in child support. He fell behind in his payments, and had trouble staying out of jail. Eventually, the South Carolina family court sentenced him to six months in jail for non-payment of child support. By the time of his release, he was $5,728 in arrears, and was sentenced again, to 12 months in jail.
Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, took the position that giving free counsel to a father who fails to pay child support would give an unfair advantage if the aggrieved mother is too poor to hire a lawyer.
The Constitution Project, a bipartisan justice reform organization, blasted the Supreme Court ruling, saying it undermined “the fundamental fairness of our justice system, putting Americans in danger of losing their liberty simply because they cannot afford a lawyer.”
The group added: “With this decision, the Supreme Court has effectively endorsed the expansion of the unjust use of debtors’ prisons in America.”
-Noel Brinkerhoff
No Right to Lawyer for Deadbeat Dad (by Evan Schultz, Scotus Blog)
Analysis of Turner v. Rogers Opinion (by Zachary Cloud, Criminal Law & Psychology Blog)
Turner v. Rogers (U.S. Supreme Court) (pdf)


Bill Stoneking 12 years ago
this is sad. because civil contempt is quasi-criminal, other supreme court cases have stated that this requires the fullest protection of rights. i don't have the case off hand, it's in my library somewhere, and that should be something put forth before the legislature that a person held in contempt, and not of substantial means to afford counsel, should be afforded counsel. a poor mother? damn, don't they already get enough welfare and pro-bono hand outs? the whole support issue needs to be completely re-thought.

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