If a father hasn’t paid child support in accordance with a court order, he can be sent to jail. There are penalties for not doing what a court of law tells you to do — you can wind up with a civil contempt of court charge and jail time. The most famous civil contempt of court cases involve reporters who refuse to reveal their sources after a judge has issued an order. They spend time in jail until they disclose the information, or they appeal, typically with the help of the newspaper’s attorney.
But what happens if you can’t afford an attorney? If you were up on criminal charges, the court would appoint a public defender. In some states, Illinois included, the court will not do this for a civil matter. Can a civil penalty that affects a defendant’s liberty be imposed if the defendant is not represented by counsel? Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on just that subject in the context of unpaid child support.
The defendant in the original case was a man who had failed to make child support payments time and time again. Repeatedly held in contempt for these failures, the court sent him to jail for as much as a year at a time. In a civil contempt matter, the general rule is that the defendant holds the keys to his own jail cell. Pay the child support, and we’ll let you out. The problem here was that the “deadbeat dad” was too poor to pay the support he owed.
Civil contempt is used for coercion, not punishment. And, generally, a contempt charge is only appropriate if the defendant is able to comply with the order but simply refuses to. If Bill Gates were ordered to pay $20 to someone whose car he’d dinged, and he simply refused to pay, on principle, the judge could cite him for civil contempt. He’d be hauled off to jail and would stay there until he handed over the money.
But, again, this guy didn’t have the money, and that meant the jail time was pure punishment.
Continued in our next post.
Source: New York Times, “Justices Grapple With Issue of Right to Lawyers in Child Support Cases,” Adam Liptak, 03/23/11