The U.S. Supreme Court decided an interesting case this week, Turner v. Rogers, addressing an indigent defendant's right to counsel for civil contempt proceedings when facing incarceration. Turner was held in contempt of court and sentenced to incarceration several times over many years because of his failure to pay child support. While imprisoned for a year, he appealed arguing that under the Fourteenth Amendment, he was entitled to counsel during his hearing (even though the custodial parent, Rogers, did not have an attorney at the hearing either).
The Court unanimously held that Turner was not entitled to an attorney at his hearing. The Court noted that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel only applies in criminal cases so they had to look to the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process clause. Citing policy reasons for the importance of due process, the Court ultimately decided that providing an indigent defendant with an attorney in civil contempt proceedings would make the proceedings "less fair" overall. The reasoning for this is because, as here, a lot of times the custodial parent seeking child support is not represented by counsel either. Since this parent is arguably a single parent, trying to support a family, he or she may not have the money for an attorney. To appoint counsel to one party and not the other would make the proceedings vastly unfair.
The Court also held, however, that there are certain procedural safeguards that should be in place to prevent violations of due process in situations like this. For instance, the lower court should have informed Turner of the legal significance of his financial situation; or they should have had a common form for defendants to fill out regarding their financial situations; or lastly, they should have afforded Turner the opportunity to answer questions about his financial status during the hearing. Without these procedural safeguards, the Court was required to vacate the decision and remand the case for further proceedings.
Tennessee Criminal Law Review discussed this case after Oral Arguments here. There has been extensive coverage about his case: New York Times, Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal Blog all offer analysis that is worth reading.