A sharply divided Supreme Court on Monday refused to require states to provide lawyers for poor people in civil cases involving incarceration but did order state officials to ensure that those hearings are "fundamentally fair" to the person facing possible detention.
The justices voted 5-4 along ideological lines to uphold the appeal of Michael Turner, a South Carolina man sent to jail for up to 12 months after he insisted he could not afford his child support payments. Turner had no lawyer, and claimed all people facing jail time have a constitutional right to an attorney.
Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote the opinion for the court's four liberal-leaning justices and Justice Anthony Kennedy, would not go that far, saying "the Due Process Clause does not always require the provision of counsel in civil proceedings where incarceration is threatened."
But Breyer said Turner was never told his ability to pay was the crucial question at his civil contempt hearing, no one provided him with a form that would helped him disclose his financial information, and the state court never even officially determined whether Turner had the ability to pay the child support he owed.
"Under these circumstances, Turner's incarceration violated the Due Process Clause," Breyer said.
The court's four conservatives, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, dissented. Thomas said he agreed that there was no constitutional right to a lawyer for people facing jail time in a civil case, but would not have ruled that the South Carolina courts treated Turner unfairly because that issue was not before the court.
"Although the court agrees that appointed counsel was not required in this case, it nevertheless vacates the judgment of the South Carolina Supreme Court on a different ground, which the parties never raised," Thomas said in the dissent.
Prompted by arguments from the Justice Department in front of the justices, "the majority decides that Turner's contempt proceedings violated due process because it did not include `alternative procedural safeguards,'" Thomas said. "Consistent with this court's long-standing practice, I would not reach that question."
The case now goes back to the South Carolina state courts.
Turner had already been held in contempt five times for not paying his child support payments of $51.73 a week.
After being released from jail and told that he owed $5,728.76 in back child support, 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. Unmoved, the judge gave him to up to 12 months in jail, although Turner could get out the minute he paid Rebecca Rogers, the mother of his child, what he owed her.
Turner had no lawyer at the court hearing, but neither did Rogers.
"A requirement that the state provide counsel to the noncustodial parent in these cases could create an asymmetry of representation that would `alter significantly the nature of the proceeding,'" Breyer said. "And perhaps more important for present purposes, doing so could make the proceedings less fair overall, increasing the risks of a decision that would erroneously deprive a family of the support it is entitled to receive."
But, even though states don't have to provide lawyers, "the state must nonetheless have in place alternative procedures that assure a fundamentally fair determination of the critical incarceration question," Breyer said.
The case is Turner v. Rogers, 10-10.