On June 20, 2011, the United States Supreme Court came down with a narrow decision on a constitutional rights issue that has produced dire results for many low-income Americans tangled in the civil justice system. Turner v. Rogers, et al. holds that poor or indigent individuals do not have an automatic right to free legal representation in a civil case where incarceration time is possible. This decision stands in contrast to Gideon v. Wainwright [wherein the USSC held that an indigent defendant in a criminal trial has a fundamental right to counsel pursuant to the 14th Amendment] and to United States v. Dixon [wherein the USSC held that the 6th Amendment grants an indigent criminal defendant the right to counsel.]
Turner v. Rogers, et al. involved an indigent South Carolina father with a large child support arrearage who was held in "willful" contempt of court for failure to make his monthly payments. Mr. Turner served a 6 month prison sentence followed by an additional 12 month sentence. The USSC held that:
The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause does not automatically require the State to provide counsel at civil contempt proceedings to an indigent parent, even if that parent faces incarceration.
Supreme Court cases have yet to provide clear precedent on whether free legal representation should be provided to indigent defendants in a civil matter. The Turner Court acknowledged that this important legal issue remains a grey area, but failed to seize the opportunity that only these 9 justices could have taken to make the civil justice system more fundamentally fair for all citizens. Instead, the Supreme Court kept an extremely narrow focus on the question of "do poor or indigent defendants have a right to counsel in civil cases?" by limiting its decision to only "highly complex" civil contempt child support proceedings.
Fortunately for Turner, and other noncustodial parents like Turner, the USSC found that his 12 month prison sentence did violate the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause because he was not afforded the basic procedural safeguards owed to him in civil contempt cases.
The Turner case brings up a fundamental constitutional question that people have been asking for years. The Official LawInfo Blog, LawInfo.com, gets right to the point: "Why do civil litigants NOT deserve to have an attorney appointed for them so long as the hearings are “Fundamentally Fair?”’
This blog’s message echoes a certain nonprofit legal advocacy organization’s mission, The Public Justice Center (PJC). PJC "seeks to enforce and expand the rights of people who suffer injustice because of their poverty or discrimination." There’s no grey area from PJC’s perspective; the organization lays the reality of our civil justice system out for us in black and white:
"The guarantee of counsel – bedrock of the American criminal justice system – is conspicuously absent from the nation’s civil justice system. In civil cases, people of limited means have no such right – not even when a home is threatened or a child is taken away; not even when the complexity of the matter guarantees an unfair result; and not even when the other side has counsel."
Many people think that the saying "if you can’t afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you" is applied universally across both the criminal and civil justice systems, but it is not. PJC and many other organizations and individuals are dedicated to seeking the recognition of a poor/indigent person’s constitutional right to receive legal representation when one’s personal liberty is at stake. Please visit http://www.publicjustice.org/our-work/index.cfm?pageid=88 if you are interested in reading more about such an initiative.