On Monday, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Turner v. Rogers, the case of a South Carolina father who – without a lawyer – was incarcerated for a year for failure to pay child support. Turner, along with several amici including Legal Aid, argued that non-custodial parent should have a right to counsel if facing prison time for failure to pay child support. The Court disagreed with our perspective, ruling 5-4 that respondents do not have a right to legal representation in civil contempt cases for child support. However, the Court also ruled that the South Carolina court failed to provide sufficient procedural safeguards for Mr. Turner, so his conviction was vacated and remanded to the trial court.
Despite the Court’s disappointing decision not to guarantee counsel in civil contempt cases, the majority opinion’s dicta is somewhat encouraging. First, the Court specified that its holding is limited to situations in which the custodial parent, not the state, is bringing the child support case. As I noted to the National Law Journal, (subscription required), virtually all of our cases involve government counsel seeking contempt, distinguishing them, in the Court’s view, from the Turner situation. Moreover, the Court concluded that courts have an obligation to use “alternative procedures” to protect the due process rights of unrepresented litigants, which the South Carolina court failed to provide to Mr. Turner.
Interestingly, Professor Marty Guggenheim of NYU Law School believes that the Turner decision is a cause for significant optimism.