U.S. Supreme Court

Civil Gideon in Deadbeat Dad Cases Would Be ‘Massive’ Change, Lawyer Tells Justices

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A constitutional requirement for a lawyer in civil contempt cases against parents who don’t pay child support would be a “massive” change, a lawyer argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday.

At issue is whether Michael Turner had a due-process right to an appointed lawyer when he was sentenced to a year in prison for failing to pay child support. During oral arguments, a number of justices expressed misgivings about extending the right to counsel in criminal cases to contempt proceedings, the National Law Journal reports. The New York Times also has coverage.

University of Pennsylvania law professor Stephanos Bibas represents the woman seeking child support. A former clerk for Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Bibas argued that a decision finding a right to a lawyer would have a big impact.

Because a loss of liberty is a factor in the case, a ruling for Turner “would apply to thousands of immigration hearings, for example,” Bibas said. “We’re talking about reformulating rules in a huge number of states that probably affect hundreds of thousands of cases.”

According to the Times, a majority of states do provide lawyers to parents facing jail time over missed child support payments. The ABA filed an amicus brief supporting a right to a lawyer. It argues 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.

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