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Turner v. Rogers

Citation. 564 U.S. 431 (2011)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Man jailed for failing to pay child support and he brings a case for violation of his due process rights because he was not given state appointed counsel when he was faced with the possibility of incarceration.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The Due Process Clause does not require the right to counsel for an indigent person at a civil contempt hearing when there is a prospect of incarceration, but the court must have alternative procedural safeguards to determine when counsel should be appointed.


Plaintiff Turner is ordered to pay the Defendant Rogers, the mother of his child, child support weekly. Because of a work injury and drug use Turner failed to pay. Turner was held in contempt and served 6 months in prison. After his release Turner was still behind in his child support payments and appeared at a hearing without counsel where the judge sentenced him to 12 months in prison. While serving his sentence he appealed with the help of pro bono counsel.


Does the Due Process Clause grant an indigent defendant the right to state appointed counsel at a civil contempt proceeding that could result in the defendant being sent to jail?


No. The Due Process Clause does not require the court to grant an indigent defendant the right to counsel in a proceeding that could result in incarceration so long as alternative safeguard procedures are in place. Judgement of the Supreme Court of South Carolina is vacated and case remanded.


Justice Justice Thomas with Justices Scalia and Chief Justice and Justice Alito join as to parts I-B and II

Analysis should have stopped after analysis showed that the Due Process Clause did not grant indigent defendants in civil contempt proceedings the right to counsel.


1. The Sixth Amendment grants an indigent defendant the right to counsel in criminal proceedings not civil cases.
2. The Due Process Clause requires safeguards to ensure the proceeding is fundamentally fair.
3. The court must weigh the interests of the defendant against the value of additional safeguards.
4. In this weighing the court should consider the nature of the private interests, the right of deprivation of that interest if the procedural safeguards are not in place, and the magnitude of any interest in not providing the safeguards.
5. There are three reasons for not requiring counsel in child support cases: (1) the defendant’s inability to pay can be determined before counsel if needed, the custodial parent is often not represented by counsel and it would be unfair and unduly delay proceedings to allow the other parent counsel, and (3) there are substitute safeguards to reduce the risk of erroneous incarceration.
6. Other safeguards in this case include (a) telling defendant that his ability to pay is a critical issue, (b) using a form to obtain financial information, (c) allowing defendant to answer questions about his financial status, (d) and a finding by the court that the defendant has the ability to pay.
7. Defendant may need help, such as from a social worker, but not legal assistance
8. A right to counsel would come with unfairness and delay, especially if the opposing parent is not represented by counsel.
9. Here, Turner was faced with incarceration which is a significant interest but was not given counsel nor the alternative safeguards
10. He did not get clear notice that his ability to pay would be a critical factor in the contempt proceeding, nor was he given a financial form to determine his financial situation.
11. The court left the findings section of the contempt form blank but still found defendant  in contempt.
12.Therefore, defendant’s incarceration violated the Due Process Clause.

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