In a somewhat surprising turn of events, the Supreme Court of the United States recently granted certiorari in a child support enforcement case out of South Carolina.
Specifically, the Court will decide whether the constitutional rights of an indigent father who was found to be in civil contempt for failing to make child support payments and who was ultimately jailed were violated.
The case is Michael D. Turner v. Rebecca Price and the South Carolina Department of Social Services.
In January 2008, a family court judge in Oconee County, South Carolina, found Michael Turner to be in civil contempt due to his failure to pay $5,728 in child support. Turner, who had been held in civil contempt for the same reason on multiple occasions, was subsequently sentenced to exactly one year in jail.
However, the family court judge also held that “[Turner ] may purge himself of the contempt and avoid the sentence by having a zero balance on or before his release.” Essentially, this meant that if Turner paid the child support owed, he could avoid the sentence altogether.
It must also be noted that Turner represented himself at the hearing and was not informed of his right to an attorney.
Turner decided to appeal the family court judge’s civil contempt order and eventually wound up before the South Carolina Supreme Court. In his appeal, he argued that his rights under the Sixth (right to counsel) and Fourteenth (due process) Amendments had been violated, and that indigent defendants in civil contempt proceedings were guaranteed a right to an attorney under the U.S. Constitution.
However, the South Carolina Supreme Court disagreed, finding that no such right existed.
The court justified its decision by stressing the difference between criminal contempt and civil contempt. Specifically, that the primary objective of criminal contempt – where defendants have a constitutional right to an attorney – is unconditional punishment for disobedient or disrespectful behavior towards the court, while the primary objective of civil contempt is merely conditional punishment designed to force a party into compliance with a court order.
“A contemnor imprisoned for civil contempt is said to hold the keys to his cell because he may end the imprisonment and purge himself of the sentence at any time by doing the act he had previously refused to do,” said the South Carolina Supreme Court in its ruling.
Accordingly, the court found that since Turner had the ability to free himself by paying the child support, and was subject to neither a permanent nor unconditional loss of his liberty, there was no constitutional right to an attorney.
Currently, only South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Ohio, and Maine do not guarantee indigent parents the right to an attorney in civil contempt proceedings.
Oral arguments in the Turner case will likely be held sometime this spring and a final decision handed down over the summer.
Stay tuned for more from our Ft. Worth family law blog …
This post is for informational purposes only and is not to be construed as legal advice.
Supreme Court to Hear S.C. Indigent Parent Case (The Nerve)
Price v. Turner (South Carolina Supreme Court)