Turner v. Rogers

131 S.Ct. 2507 (2011)


South Carolina family courts enforce their child support orders in part through civil contempt proceedings. A South Carolina family court entered an order requiring Turner (D), to pay $51.73 per week to Rogers, to help support their child. D repeatedly failed to pay the amount due and was held in contempt on five occasions. The first four times he was sentenced to 90 days' imprisonment, but he ultimately paid the amount due (twice without being jailed, twice after spending two or three days in custody). The fifth time he did not pay but completed a 6-month sentence. After his release in 2006 D remained in arrears. The clerk issued a new 'show cause' order. And after an initial postponement due to D's failure to appear, D's civil contempt hearing took place on January 3, 2008. D and Rogers were present, each without representation by counsel. D was a drug addict with a typical drug addict story of attempts to get straight. D was $5,728.76 behind in his payments. D was found in willful contempt. The court made no express finding concerning D's ability to pay his arrearage (though D's wife had voluntarily submitted a copy of Turner's application for disability benefits). Nor did the judge ask any follow-up questions or otherwise address the ability-to-pay issue. On prewritten form called the 'Order for Contempt of Court,' the judge left the statement about D's ability to pay without indicating whether D was able to make support payments. D appealed. D claimed that the Federal Constitution entitled him to counsel at his contempt hearing. The South Carolina Supreme Court rejected his 'right to counsel' claim. The court pointed out that civil contempt differs significantly from criminal contempt. The former does not require all the 'constitutional safeguards' applicable in criminal proceedings. And the right to government-paid counsel, the Supreme Court held, was one of the 'safeguards' not required. D sought certiorari, and it was granted.