U.S. Supreme Court

ABA Brief Supports Right to Counsel for Civil Contempt Defendants Facing Possible Jail Time

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The ABA argues in a U.S. Supreme Court amicus brief that poor people should have the right to a lawyer in civil contempt proceedings carrying a threat of jail time.

The petitioner in the case, Michael Turner, served a year in prison for failing to pay child support. The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled the sentence was coercive, rather than punitive, and Turner had no right to a lawyer.

According to the brief (PDF), the ABA has concluded that low-income people should have a right to counsel in adversarial proceedings where basic human needs are at stake, such as those involving sustenance, safety, health, or child custody determinations. The rationale underlying this position also supports a right to counsel in civil contempt cases where an indigent defendant faces possible jail time.

The ABA also notes the ABA Standards for Criminal Justice support a right to counsel when incarceration is a possibility. “The line between civil and criminal contempt proceedings has become increasingly blurred,” the brief says, “and thus cannot provide a useful basis for determining the right to counsel where personal liberty is at stake.”

The brief argues that the added costs of appointed counsel should be balanced with the costs of incarceration and the possible increased support payments.

The case, previously captioned Turner v. Price, is now Turner v. Rogers. SCOTUSblog has more details and documents.

Updated on Jan. 14 to correct the petitioner’s name.

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