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Supreme Court Weighs Rights Of 'Deadbeat' Parents

The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear a case testing whether indigent parents facing jail time for failing to pay child support have the right to a lawyer.
J. Scott Applewhite
The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear a case testing whether indigent parents facing jail time for failing to pay child support have the right to a lawyer.

Go to any shelter for homeless families, and you likely will find children who would not be there but for their fathers' failure to pay child support.

Spend a day in family court, and you likely will see indigent fathers, with no lawyer, being taken away in handcuffs because they could not pay the child support they owed.

So-called deadbeat parents, usually dads, have long been a conundrum for the law. On Wednesday, they are the U.S. Supreme Court's legal problem.


Jailed For Being Too Poor?

The justices are hearing a case testing whether indigent parents who fail to make child support payments may be jailed for as much as a year at a time, without the state providing a lawyer. Though most states provide counsel for those too poor to afford legal help, a minority of states do not, including Florida, Georgia, Maine and South Carolina.

The case before the justices comes from South Carolina, where Michael Turner, an indigent father, was jailed for a year for failing to pay child support.

He could have gotten out of jail earlier by paying the nearly $6,000 he owed, but with no money and no job, he could not make the payment. He served the full 12 months.

The jail sentence was neither the first nor the last that Turner served for failure to pay. Because the mother of his child received welfare for a period of time, she assigned her right to child support to the state. The case then became subject to automatic enforcement procedures, sending Turner to court whenever he was in arrears.


Because he was repeatedly behind in payments, he was repeatedly sent to jail. Indeed, he was in jail again as recently as January.

Since South Carolina is one of those states that does not provide a lawyer for indigent parents facing prison for nonpayment, Turner was on his own in court. The judge, without making a factual finding of Turner's ability to pay, ordered the maximum sentence.

The lawyers who now represent Turner pro bono in the U.S. Supreme Court contend that he was jailed, in effect, for being too poor. They say that in South Carolina and other jurisdictions like it, the system that sends deadbeat dads to jail without a lawyer is a modern form of debtors' prison.

A Mother's Argument

Rebecca Rogers, the mother of Turner's child, and the state of South Carolina maintain that there is no need for a lawyer in these cases, because court proceedings usually turn on simple factual issues of payment history.

The South Carolina Supreme Court agreed, finding that the nonpaying parent "hold[s] the keys to his cell" because he can secure his release as soon as he pays.

Rogers says introducing lawyers into these proceedings would disadvantage mothers who, like her, often cannot afford a private attorney to help them seek the child support payments they are due.

She maintains that fathers often willfully avoid paying even when they can afford it, and points out that during one period of time, Turner bought drugs for himself instead of paying what he owed.

Rogers says the only threat that has produced any money from Turner is the prospect of jail, noting that on four occasions he paid hundreds of dollars — still far short of the thousands he owes — in an effort to avoid jail.

'Deadbeats And Turnips'

Both sides cite the research of Elaine Sorensen, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and co-author of the article "Deadbeats and Turnips in Child Support Reform."

"Deadbeats," according to Sorensen, are parents who could pay but choose not to. "Turnips" — invoking the phrase, "You can't get blood out of a turnip" — are parents who don't have the money to pay.

So what percentage of nonpaying parents are deadbeats and what percentage are turnips? Sorenson says most of those who end up in jail are low-income, and thus, "more likely to be a turnip than a deadbeat."

What's At Stake

The central legal issue in this case is whether and in what circumstances the state may deprive an individual of his liberty without providing him a lawyer.

The Supreme Court has long held that those facing criminal charges, including criminal contempt of court, are entitled to a lawyer. The Constitution provides that in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall have the right to assistance of counsel.

But deadbeat parents are cited for civil, not criminal, contempt of court. So the question before the court Wednesday will be whether long jail terms for civil contempt amount to criminal punishment.

Turner's ex says "no." She and the state argue that families have an interest in simple, swift and informal procedures so that fathers cannot flout their obligations and leave their children destitute.

Turner and his supporters counter that appearing in this kind of proceeding without a lawyer is like climbing a mountain without legs — it can be done, but not easily.

They point to statistics showing that, in South Carolina, 13 percent of the county jail population consists of nonpaying parents held in civil contempt, and 98 percent of them did not have lawyers.

A decision in the case is expected by summer.

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Corrected: March 24, 2011 at 9:00 PM PDT
The audio and a previous Web version of this story incorrectly stated that Ohio is among states that do not provide legal counsel for poor defendants in child support contempt proceedings. We relied on information in a U.S. Supreme Court brief, but it turns out that while the Ohio Supreme Court ruled there is no constitutional right to counsel, the state has since enacted a law providing counsel.