The Supreme Court delved Wednesday into two cases involving the welfare of children, including one where justices seemed ready to force courts to consider age when examining whether a child is in custody and must be given Miranda rights.
The justices wrestled with whether a child, in this case a seventh-grade special education student, could understand he was free to end police questioning and leave, a key indicator of whether someone is in custody.
In the second case, the court appeared unlikely to rule that delinquent parents must be given a lawyer before judges can jail them for not paying child support.
The special education student, known as JDB in court papers was 13 in 2005 when he confessed to a rash of break-ins in Chapel Hill, N.C. while interviewed in a closed room at his school by police and school officials.
JDB's lawyer challenged the use of his confessions. Previous court rulings have required Miranda warnings before police interrogations for people who are in custody, which is defined as when a reasonable person would think he cannot end the questioning and leave.
The North Carolina Supreme Court refused to throw the confession out, saying the youth was never actually in custody since he had not been formally restrained and the door to the room was not guarded. It also said courts cannot look at age when examining whether the boy thought he could leave.
The court's four liberal-leaning justices, as well as the more conservative Anthony Kennedy, seemed uncomfortable with this idea during the argument.
"Just as a matter of common sense, how can you say we're going to have the same test for this 8-year-old as we would for the 30-year-old?" Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said.
Judges take into account whether a person speaks English and a person's physical shortcomings _ such as deafness _ when determining whether someone thinks he is in custody, said Justice Stephen Breyer.
"There are all these things around that might suggest to a 20-year-old, yeah, you could leave, but to a 12-year-old, 'no," Breyer said.
But the court's conservative justices argued that making police officers consider age when they question children could raise challenges in other situations.
"If age should be one of the factors deciding whether the individual regarded himself as in custody or not, why shouldn't mental deficiency be so as well?" Justice Antonin Scalia said.
Chief Justice John Roberts said the point of having Miranda was that police would have clear, objective guidelines to follow. "Now they're not only going to have to know, does this person understand it, but they're going to have to ... guess how old the person is," Roberts said.
And if that's going to happen, Justice Samuel Alito posed, "then one of the chief advantages of the Miranda rule, which is that it's a relatively simple objective test, is eliminated ... and maybe at that point, there is no longer a strong argument in favor of Miranda."
In the argument over providing lawyers in child support proceedings, several justices said they were troubled by the case of a South Carolina father who was repeatedly jailed even though he insisted he could not afford child support payments of $50 a week. But the court sounded reluctant to extend the right to a taxpayer-provided lawyer that exists in criminal cases to civil proceedings where a person faces jail time.
Justice Elena Kagan was among those who wondered whether there are procedures short of a court-appointed lawyer that would give a "person in this situation a fair shake at this."
Kennedy suggested that a ruling in favor of the father, Michael Turner, could affect thousands of cases around the country. Ginsburg asked whether other civil contempt proceedings for failing to pay alimony or palimony also could be affected.
About half the states always provide lawyers in these child support hearings based on the state constitution or law, said Stephanos Bibas, the lawyer representing Rebecca Rogers, who has a child with Turner.
On the other hand, South Carolina is one of just five states in which the highest court has concluded there is no right to a lawyer. Florida, Georgia, Maine and Ohio are the others, Seth Waxman, Turner's lawyer, said in court papers.
Turner, who has worked various jobs in auto repair and construction, told a judge that drug addiction and a broken back helped explain why he had fallen behind on his child support.
Unmoved, the judge gave him to up to 12 months in jail, although Turner could get out the minute he paid Rogers what he owed her. Turner had no lawyer at the court hearing.
A lawyer later helped Turner appeal the jailing. The South Carolina Supreme Court distinguished Turner's case from criminal matters, where the state must provide a lawyer, by noting that he could have gone free as soon as he made the payment.
In child support cases, jail time is not a form of punishment, but coercion, the court said.
Associated Press writer Mark Sherman contributed to this report.