In a mixed result for the rights of indigent parents, the Supreme Court yesterday held that the year-long incarceration of a South Carolina man for failure to pay child support violated the Constitution because adequate safeguards had not been in place to ensure that his failure to pay was willful. However, the Court also ruled that parents facing jail time for failure to pay child support do not have a categorical right to a court-appointed defense attorney when the other parent is unrepresented.
The case, Turner v. Rogers, involved an appeal of an order finding Michael Turner in civil contempt because of his failure to pay child support. At the hearing, Mr. Turner had been unrepresented by counsel and had attempted to explain to the judge why he could not pay his debt. The judge did not make any finding as to Turner’s ability to pay the arrears and nonetheless ordered Turner to serve a year in prison.