U.S. Supreme Court Addresses Incarceration for Non-payment of Child Support

            Yesterday, the Supreme Court decided Turner v Rogers, 387 S. C. 142, 691 S. E. 2d 470, a case involving incarceration for contempt of court for failure to pay child support, something which is an every day occurrence in courts all over the country. 

            The petitioner argued that an alleged contemnor facing imprisonment should be entitled to counsel under the U.S. Constitution. Two important policies were in play – individual liberty vs. the interest in prompt and full payment of court-ordered child support.  The Court has previously ruled that civil contempt penalties, including incarceration, do not trigger federal constitutional guaranties because they are not punishment, their purpose is to coerce compliance with the court order.  The time-worn phrase is the Defendant “has the keys to the jailhouse in his pocket.”  If he pays – he walks.

         The Court declined to rule that defendants in civil contempt cases are entitled to legal counsel and, if indigent, one provided by the state.  But the Court held that federal constitution guaranties require substitute procedural safeguards to reduce the risks of erroneous incarcerations of child support defendants who lack the ability to pay.  These safeguards include (1) notice to the defendant that his “ability to pay” is a critical issue in the contempt proceeding; (2) the use of a form (or the equivalent) to elicit relevant financial information from him; (3) an opportunity at the hearing for him to respond to statements and questions about his financial status; and (4) an express finding by the court that the defendant has the ability to pay.  Since the record indicated that Turner was incarcerated without these safeguards, the Court vacated the ruling and remanded the case to the lower court.