Monday, November 1, 2010
The Supreme Court today granted cert. in Turner v. Price, a case from the South Carolina Supreme Court rejecting petitioner's claim that he had a constitutional right to counsel in a civil contempt proceeding.
Petitioner Michael Turner appeared in South Carolina family court in 2008 on a rule to show cause why he should not be held in contempt for failure to pay child support. (He owed nearly $6,000 and hadn't made a payment in 18 months.) He was not represented by counsel. The court found him in willful contempt of the child support order and sentenced him to twelve months in a detention center, "which sentence he could purge himself of and avoid by full payment of his child support arrearage."
The South Carolina Supreme Court rejected Turner's argument for court-appointed counsel under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. The decision turned on Turner's ability to avoid the sentence altogether:
Here, the family court judge found Appellant in willful contempt of the support order and sentenced him to twelve months in a detention facility, stating, "He may purge himself of the contempt and avoid the sentence by having a zero balance on or before his release." This conditional sentence is a classic civil contempt sanction. Therefore, Appellant is not constitutionally entitled to appointment of counsel.
. . .
Because Appellant may avoid the sentence altogether by complying with the court's previous support order, he holds the keys to his cell door and is not subject to a permanent or unconditional loss of liberty.
The court acknowledged that it was adopting the minority position on the issue.
Remarkably, especially considering the federal constitutional claims, the court did not cite a single U.S. Supreme Court case. (It cited precious few cases at all, and no federal cases outside the footnotes.)
The U.S. Supreme Court directed the parties to brief a second issue in the case: whether the Court has jurisdiction to review the decision at all. (Turner served out his contempt sentence, and it's not clear that the state courts ruled on all his claims now before the Supreme Court.)