Last month on June 20th, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a disturbing split verdict in the case of Michael D. Turner, an unemployed South Carolina dad who was repeatedly put in jail for child support arrears although he had no ability to pay his court-ordered support. The case hinged on whether or not an impoverished non-custodial parent has the right to court-appointed legal counsel when facing jail time for arrears.
In its 5-4 split verdict, the court ruled that while it is impermissible to jail poor parents for arrears without giving them a chance to be heard in court, that non-custodial parents facing jail time are not entitled to court appointed legal defenders.
Under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, citizens facing jail time are entitled to court appointed attorneys.
So what was the Supreme Court thinking?
According to Justice Clarence "There's a Pubic Hair in My Coke" Thomas, the Constitution need not apply to non-custodial parents because jail time for child support is not "real" jail time in the sense that it is for criminals. It is "coercive" jail time which arises out of a contempt of court proceeding. Pay no mind to the fact that poor non-custodial parents are jailed in overcrowded prisons with hardcore criminals like murderers and rapists, otherwise one would have to draw a distinction between "criminal" jail time and "coercive" jail time,
Even Justice Breyer ,who wrote a supposedly sympatric majority opinion for non-custodial parents, offered up some strange thoughts on why non-custodial parents shouldn't have lawyers when facing jail time: because that would be unfair to custodial parents without attorneys of their own. Apparently, Breyer doesn't see mighty state child support agencies, police, and family court judges as adequate legal representation for custodial parents.
Family law reform activists might take some satisfaction in the outcome in this case because, on a procedural level, the Supreme Court is saying that better rules must be followed when states seek to jail non-custodial parents. But this victory is somewhat hollow when the Supreme Court leaves wide open the issue of debtors' prisons in general and fails to address non-custodial parents facing political imprisonment over financial debt.
According to an attorney representing non-custodial parents in this case, family court judges in South Carolina alone try about 100 family law cases in a single morning without giving poor non-custodial parents a proper chance to explain their financial situations. And at any given time in just the state of South Carolina, at least 1,500 individuals are in jail for child support arrears (the exact number might be much higher because these are contempt cases, and many courts often throw these statistics in with criminal imprisonments -- isn't that right Justice Thomas?).
So long as there are debtors' prisons and political imprisonment in family law cases, our nation's courts are in direct violation of our Constitution no matter which way some jurists, politicians, and the media might attempt to spin.
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