June 20, 2011

Supreme Court Decides Turner v. Rogers

On June 20, 2011, the Supreme Court decided Turner v. Rogers, No. 10-10, holding that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was violated when a petitioner was incarcerated for civil contempt for failure to comply with an order for child support payments that was imposed without the benefit of counsel and without alternative procedural safeguards.

Petitioner Michael Turner was ordered by a South Carolina family court to pay $51.73 per week to respondent Rebecca Rogers to support their child. Turner failed to pay the amount numerous times and was held in contempt on five separate occasions for those failures. He ultimately paid child support the first four times he was held in contempt. The fifth time, Turner completed a six-month sentence for civil contempt. After his release, another civil contempt hearing was held based on Turner's failure to pay more than $5,000 he owed for child support. At that hearing—where both Turner and Rogers were unrepresented—Turner was sentenced to twelve months in prison based on the court's finding that Turner was in willful contempt but without any finding as to his ability to pay. The South Carolina Supreme Court rejected Turner's claim that the Federal Constitution entitled him to counsel at his civil contempt hearing where a one-year sentence was imposed.

The Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the South Carolina Supreme Court. The Court first held that it could review the decision below, even though Turner had completed his prison sentence. The case fell into the special category of disputes that are not moot because they are "‘capable of repetition' while ‘evading review'" based on the short duration of the prison sentence and likelihood that Turner would be subjected to the same action. Addressing the merits, the Court analyzed its precedent regarding right to counsel in civil matters and confirmed that a right to counsel does not exist in all matters involving incarceration. The Court then considered the due process factors announced in Mathews v. Eldridge and refused to impose a blanket rule that contempt proceedings for indigents based on failure to make child support require appointment of counsel where prison sentences are imposed. The factor for the "private interest that will be affected" weighed in favor of a right to counsel because it involved an indigent's loss of personal liberty through imprisonment. Three related considerations, however, strongly weighed against a holding that states are required to provide indigents with counsel in every civil contempt proceeding based on the failure to comply with child custody orders: (1) The critical question at issue, ability to pay, is often straightforward; (2) the defendant's opposition is often a custodial parent, who is also unrepresented; and (3) substitute procedural safeguards are available. The Court made clear that its decision did not address instances where the state sought reimbursement for child support payments, nor did it address "unusually complex case[s]." Because Turner received neither counsel nor "alternative procedures," the underlying judgment was vacated, and the case was remanded back to state court.

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined.  Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Scalia joined and in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito joined in part. 

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