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US Supreme Court weighs right to lawyer in child support cases (concl.)

We're wrapping up our series on the child support case recently argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. The father was in serious arrears with his support payments and had been haled into court on the matter many times. He explained to the court that he was simply too poor to make the payments, and the family court charged him with civil contempt and sent him to jail each time. The man argues that the court should have appointed an attorney for him. The Supreme Court is now asked to determine if courts should appoint an attorney for unrepresented, indigent parties in civil matters (specifically child support cases).

Opposing counsel say that incarceration is rare, because the contempt charge achieves its objective: The defendants respond to the threat by paying. There's also the question of additional costs to the government if states are mandated to provide counsel -- an unintended consequence could very well be that states would not pursue deadbeat parents at all.

Supporters of the defendant say that appointing an attorney in these cases would serve judicial efficiency. Judges' time wouldn't be spent deciphering pro se pleadings, and there would probably be a decrease in the number of repeat offenders.

One issue in the family court proceedings is nipping at all the due process, right-to-an-attorney arguments: The judge did not give the defendant an opportunity to prove that he couldn't pay. The defendant was simply found in contempt and tossed into jail. And that is another violation of due process.

The Court has two issues to address, then. They need to decide if the defendant's rights to due process were violated by not allowing him to prove his inability to pay, and they need to decide if defendants charged with civil contempt in child support cases have the right to a court-appointed attorney.

If the decision is in favor of court-appointed counsel, the decision could affect a wide range of civil cases, including "tens of thousands of immigration and extradition cases." A decision against would mean that people like the defendant will have no right to counsel even when their liberty is at stake.


New York Times, "Justices Grapple With Issue of Right to Lawyers in Child Support Cases," Adam Liptak, 03/23/11.

Legal Information Institute, Turner v. Rogers (10-10), 03/23/11

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