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A family law case is now before the United States Supreme Court

by | Nov 28, 2010 | Child Custody, contempt |

It is rare when the United States Supreme Court hears a child support case. However, there is a case before the Supreme Court now involving such an issue. In the case of Turner v. Price, Docket No. 10-10, Turner was incarcerated for one year for non-payment of child support. The South Carolina Court that heard the trial did not make a finding that Turner was indigent and did not appoint an attorney to represent him before sentencing him to jail. If Turner was sentenced in a criminal case, he would have had a court appointed attorney. However, in a civil contempt case, under South Carolina law, he didn’t qualify for a court appointed lawyer.
It doesn’t make any difference to a person if they are jailed in a civil case or a criminal case. Jail is jail either way. Violation of a court order may result in a case for civil or criminal contempt. The court has the power to jail people for violation of court orders. Some people violate court orders and fail to pay child support because they can’t afford to pay the money. Others violate court orders and fail to pay child support because they choose to not pay the money. Clearly some people need the threat of a jail sentence or even time in jail as an incentive to pay child support. Frequently, the determination of imposing jail time is not known until the end of the hearing.
The case of Turner v. Price raises the issue of the constitutionality of imposing a jail sentence without the benefit of an attorney to defend the person before jail is imposed. Just as in criminal cases, the result of the civil contempt may be different if a lawyer is involved. This is an important issue as nobody should go to jail without due process and an opportunity to present a defense. These are not rights guaranteed in criminal cases. These are rights guaranteed to Americans under the United States Constitution. On the other hand, the state must pay for court appointed attorneys. If the defendant can’t afford an attorney and the state must provide one then the state must also pay for the attorney. As the states are cutting budgets and court systems are experiencing large cuts in their budgets, it is difficult to argue that they should allocate money to pay attorneys to represent parents who won’t pay child support. I suspect that any ruling on this case will extend to all civil contempts including contempts for non-payment of alimony and any other violation of a court order.
This case bears watching but we may be disappointed in the result. The court ordered the parties to brief the issue of incarceration for civil contempt without a lawyer and another issue. They also ordered the parties to brief the issue of whether the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to hear this case. If the court finds no jurisdiction, they won’t may any orders on the other issue. The briefs in this case are due to be filed in January and February, 2011.

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