A sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court held that a South Carolina court violated father's constitutional due process rights where he was not given a lawyer or other help before he was jailed for failing to pay child support. In a 5-4 decision, the high court did not go so far as to say that states are required by the Due Process Clause of the Constitution to provide lawyers for poor people in civil cases where a person faces jail time.
Michael Turner, a South Carolina resident, was sentenced to serve up to 12 months in jail for felony non-support, even though he insisted he could not afford his child support payments. Turner had no lawyer. He claimed, and had plenty of support from activists, that all people facing a jail sentence have a constitutional right to an attorney. The Supreme Court held only that a trial court must use "alternative procedures" to ensure "fundamentally fair" hearings.
- The trial court never told Turner that his ability to pay was the crucial question at his civil contempt hearing;
- Turner was not provided by the trial court or its employees with a form that would have helped him disclose his financial information; and
- The trial court never even officially determined whether Turner had the ability to pay the child support he owed.
"Under these circumstances, Turner's incarceration violated the Due Process Clause," Breyer said.
Breyer noted, however, that the custodial parent did not have a lawyer either. To require trial courts to provide a lawyer for the payor of support without also appointing one for the other parent could make for an uneven playing field. Thus, alternative measures could protect due process concerns.
The case is Turner v. Rogers, which may be read here.
The New York Times article Supreme Court Rules Rights Violated in Jailing Over Child Support may be read here. A one-time registration may be required.