RESPONDENT: Rebecca L. Rogers, et al.
LOCATION: Oconee County Family Court
DOCKET NO.: 10-10
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: South Carolina Supreme Court
CITATION: 564 US (2011)
GRANTED: Nov 01, 2010
ARGUED: Mar 23, 2011
DECIDED: Jun 20, 2011
Leondra R. Kruger - Acting Principal Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, as amicus curiae, for the United States
Stephanos Bibas - for the respondents
Seth P. Waxman - for the petitioner
Facts of the case
In January 2007, Michael Turner appeared in Oconee County, S.C., Family Court because he was behind in his child support obligation. He did not have an attorney, and he was not asked whether he needed or wanted representation. He presented some evidence of his inability to work, but the court made no finding as to Turner's indigent status. The judge held him in contempt and sentenced him to one year in jail. The South Carolina Supreme Court rejected Turner's argument for court-appointed counsel under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Do poor people who face incarceration for civil contempt have a Sixth Amendment constitutional right to a court-appointed attorney as protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?
Media for Turner v. RogersAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 23, 2011 in Turner v. Rogers
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 20, 2011 in Turner v. Rogers
Stephen G. Breyer:
South Carolina's family court sometimes enforces its child support orders by holding in civil contempt, and potentially imprisoning for up to one year, those whom the Court has ordered to pay child support, and who can but do not do so.
Applying that law, the South Carolina Court sent petitioner Michael Turner to prison for up to a year, or until he paid the child support he owed, whichever came first.
Turner, who says he is indigent, had no lawyer at a civil contempt hearing.
And he's asked us to decide whether the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause requires the State to provide with counsel at a civil contempt hearing an indigent person potentially faced with imprisonment.
Now, this is a civil case, and traditionally, a person imprisoned for civil contempt, for violating a court order can be released by complying with the order.
Its slogan is, he "carries the keys of his prison in his own pocket."
Still, an indigent may find it difficult to comply with an order to pay child support and for that reason, might have a defense to the contempt charge.
But is he indigent, so that he cannot pay?
Turner says he should have a lawyer to help him answer that question.
In reaching our conclusion, we balanced several relevant interests.
Turner has an obviously strong interest on his side, namely that accuracy in respect to his financial status is especially important, because he is threatened with prison.
But three other factors, which we explain in detail in our opinion, lead us to conclude that nonetheless, a defendant in Turner's position is not automatically entitled to a lawyer.
First, although the issue of ability to pay is important, it will often be fairly easy to show.
Even in a criminal case, a defendant who won't yet a have a lawyer has to provide information that shows that he's indigent before he can insist that the state give him a lawyer.
Second, what about the other parent who has owed child support?
Sometimes, the person who stands the benefit from child support enforcement is not the state but the other parent.
And that parent, say the mother, maybe relatively poor, unemployed, and be unable to afford counsel.
In such a case to give a lawyer to only one side, say the father, but not to the mother, could make the proceeding taken as a whole, less fair, not more fair.
Third, at the same time, we believe there are alternative procedures that could protect the defendant's rights with less risk of unnecessarily depriving the family of the child support payments that they need.
As the Solicitor General has pointed out, those alternatives include, notice to the defendant that his ability to pay is a very important issue, the use of a form or some other equivalent to elicit relevant financial information, an opportunity at the hearing for the defendant to respond to follow up questions, say by the judge, and an expressed finding by the Court whether the defendant does, or does not have the ability to pay.
We conclude that where as here the custodial parent, here, is the child's mother, is not represented by a counsel, the state need not provide counsel to Turner be a noncustodial parent who is supposed to pay the child support.
But we attach important caveat, namely that the State must nonetheless have in place alternative procedures that assure a fundamentally fair determination of the critical question, whether the father was or was not able to comply with the support order.
Here, South Carolina provided neither counsel nor alternative procedures.
Thus, Turner's proceedings were constitutionally defective.
We vacate the judgment of the South Carolina Supreme Court and we remand the case.
Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting Opinion in which Justice Scalia joins and in which the Chief Justice and Justice Alito join as to Parts I-B and II.