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Lawyers not required, justices rule

Fairness deemed enough for poor in civil cases

By Jesse J. Holland
Associated Press / June 21, 2011

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WASHINGTON — A sharply divided Supreme Court yesterday refused to require states to provide lawyers for poor people in civil cases involving incarceration, but ordered state officials to ensure that those hearings are “fundamentally fair’’ to the person facing possible detention.

The justices voted, 5 to 4, to uphold the appeal of Michael Turner, a South Carolina man sent to jail for up to 12 months after he insisted he could not afford his child support payments. Turner had no lawyer, and said all people facing jail time have a constitutional right to a lawyer.

Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote the opinion for the court’s four liberal-leaning justices and Justice Anthony Kennedy, would not go that far, saying “the Due Process Clause does not always require the provision of counsel in civil proceedings where incarceration is threatened.’’

But Breyer said Turner was never told his ability to pay was the crucial question at his civil contempt hearing, no one provided him with a form that would have helped him disclose his financial information, and the state court never even officially determined whether Turner had the ability to pay the child support he owed.

“Under these circumstances, Turner’s incarceration violated the Due Process Clause,’’ Breyer said. The court’s four conservatives, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito, dissented. Thomas said he agreed that there was no constitutional right to a lawyer for people facing jail time in a civil case, but would not have ruled that the South Carolina courts treated Turner unfairly because that issue was not before the court.

“Although the court agrees that appointed counsel was not required in this case, it nevertheless vacates the judgment of the South Carolina Supreme Court on a different ground, which the parties never raised,’’ Thomas said in the dissent.

Prompted by arguments from the Justice Department in front of the justices, “the majority decides that Turner’s contempt proceedings violated due process because it did not include ‘alternative procedural safeguards,’ ’’ Thomas said. “Consistent with this court’s longstanding practice, I would not reach that question.’’

The case now goes back to South Carolina state courts.

Turner had already been held in contempt five times for not paying his child support payments of $51.73 a week. After being released from jail, he owed $5,729 in back child support.

In other action yesterday:

■ The court limited the First Amendment right of government employees, saying a police chief cannot sue over employer retaliation that came after he spoke out on a pay matter.

The justices overturned a ruling for Charles Guarnieri, former police chief of Duryea, Pa. After Guarnieri won a union grievance, city officials denied his request for overtime pay. Guarnieri contended the denial was retaliation for his union grievance, and the Third Circuit US Court of Appeals upheld his victory. But the high court ruled, 8 to 1, that government employers can take adverse actions against employees who speak out on private matters.

■ The justices said they won’t hear an appeal from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, the activist group driven to ruin by scandal and financial woes, over being banned from getting federal funds.

The high court refused to review a federal appeals court’s decision to uphold Congress’s ban on US funds for the association.