Supreme Court rules indigent defendants do not have right to counsel in civil cases

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Monday ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-4 in Turner v. Rogers [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that an indigent defendant does not have a constitutional right to counsel in civil contempt cases that might result in imprisonment. The court held, however, that this particular defendant's due process rights were violated because he received neither counsel nor access to alternative procedures at his contempt hearing, even though the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment [text] does not necessarily confer the right to counsel in civil cases. The petitioner, Michael Turner, was found to be in civil contempt for failure to pay court-ordered child support payments and was sentenced to 12 months in prison. Turner appealed his sentence, arguing that the court should have provided him with counsel because there was a possibility he would face imprisonment. The respondents first argued that the case is moot because Turner had already finished his 12-month sentence prior to civil litigation. The court ruled, however, that the case is not moot because it falls within a special category of disputes that are "capable of repetition" while "evading review." The court noted that, in determining whether a defendant's due process rights are violated in similar civil contempt actions, a court must consider the defendant's ability to pay child support, whether the opposing party is the government or the custodial parent unrepresented by counsel, and whether there are substitute procedural safeguards in place. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, emphasized the importance of a defendant's due process rights:

The "private interest that will be affected" argues strongly for the right to counsel that Turner advocates. That interest consists of an indigent defendant's loss of personal liberty through imprisonment. The interest in securing that freedom, the freedom "from bodily restraint," lies "at the core of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause." And we have made clear that its threatened loss through legal proceedings demands "due process protection."
The majority vacated the lower court's ruling and remanded for further consistent proceedings.

Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito, stressed that neither the Fourteenth nor Sixth Amendments [text] confer the right to counsel in civil cases. He also pointed out that the court should not have reached the issue of whether Turner's contempt hearing violated Due Process because that issue was never raised by either party prior to the filing of amicus briefs. Finally, Thomas noted that he would not engage in the majority's balancing test because state legislatures have made their own policy judgments regarding the enforcement of child support laws.

 

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