March 24, 2011 § 1 Comment

Is an indigent parent in default of child support payments entitled to appointment of counsel when he or she is faced with jail as a penalty?  That is the issue that was presented to the Supreme Court of the US (SCOTUS) on March 23, 2011.

The majority of states do appoint counsel in such a situation.  Mississippi does not.  Nor does South Carolina, where the SCOTUS case originated.  In this case, Turner v. Rodgers, et al., Michael Turner was jailed for a $6,000 arrearage in child support for 12 months or until he paid up, whichever occurred first.  He could not pay, and so served the 12 months in jail.  Turner had been jailed repeatedly for failure to pay child support.

Turner takes the position that his jailing was for being poor, and that the system amounts to a debtor’s prison.  He argues that since his liberty was at stake in the court proceeding, the court should have appointed counsel for him.

South Carolina and the mother counter that it is not necessary to have a lawyer because such proceedings usually are decided on the simple issue of payment or non-payment, and the history thereof.  They point out that Turner “had the key to the jail,” as the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in the case.  And they add that introducing lawyers into the proceedings would disadvantage mothers who can’t afford a private attorney to help them seek child support payments.

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to an attorney in a criminal case, and SCOTUS has long interpreted that guarantee to include state criminal courts, but not civil cases. The distinction here is the possibility of jail time.

The SCOTUS decision is expected by this summer.

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