We are continuing our discussion of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case about child support. The appellant hadn't been able to pay. The family court found him in contempt and sentenced him to a year in jail. The Supreme Court was asked if a non-custodial parent has the right to counsel in a child custody hearing when incarceration is a possible outcome.
The majority said that court-appointed counsel was not appropriate. The courts have specific safeguards in place to diminish the chance of wrongful incarceration in civil contempt cases.
The Court describes the safeguards as follows:
- Notice to the non-custodial parent that his "ability to pay" is a critical issue in the contempt proceeding;
- The use of a standardized form to collect relevant financial information from the defendant.
- An opportunity at the hearing to respond to statements and questions about his or her financial status.
- An express finding by the court that the defendant has the ability to pay.
The appellant did not lose his case altogether. He was not entitled to a court-appointed attorney, but his due process rights were nonetheless violated. The court had forgotten all of the safeguards but one: The appellant was able to make a statement about his financial status. Without the others, though, the decision to incarcerate him was procedurally improper.
In the end, the Supreme Court vacated the contempt finding and sent the case back to the lower court for a decision made with all of the proper safeguards in place.
The decision does not go beyond the facts of this case and non-custodial parents who are in the same boat as the appellant. The majority did not address civil contempt cases when the payments are due to the state instead of the other parent. Nor did the ruling touch on how courts should deal with complex cases, when the legal issues and consequences may not be completely understood by a pro se defendant.
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