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US Supreme Court: No right to lawyer in child support cases (p.1)

This past March, we talked about a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. One of the issues involved civil contempt for past due child support payments. The Court handed down its ruling recently, and the result could mean some changes to Illinois courts.

The appellant was a father who had failed to make child support payments time and time again. In his last court appearance, he explained that he had blown his money on drugs, but he was clean and wanted a second chance. The trial court would have none of it: The judge found the father in contempt and sentenced him to a year in jail.

In his appeal, he stated that the court had violated his 14th Amendment rights to due process by not appointing a lawyer to represent him. When a court has the power to deprive the defendant of his liberty, the defendant should have adequate representation, he said.

The Supreme Court said no. In a 5-4 decision, the majority said that mandatory representation was not appropriate. If the non-custodial parent were to have a court-appointed attorney, then the custodial parent should as well. The result would be a significant change to the nature of the child support hearing.

What makes criminal contempt cases different from civil contempt cases is that courts have what the government refers to as procedural safeguards in place in civil cases. When these safeguards are observed as they should be, the risk of wrongful incarceration is greatly reduced.

We'll get into the specific safeguards in our next post. (Our March posts about the case can be found here.)

Sources:

ABA Journal, "Supreme Court Finds No Automatic Right to Counsel in Child Support Contempt Proceedings," Debra Cassens Weiss, June 20, 2011

Turner v. Rogers et al., 564 U.S. ___ (2011), Argued March 23, 2011; decided June 20, 2011

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