WASHINGTON — A sharply divided Supreme Court on Monday refused to require states to provide lawyers for poor people in civil cases involving incarceration but did order state officials to ensure that those hearings are “fundamentally fair” to the person facing possible detention.
The justices voted 5-4 along ideological lines in favor 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 claimed all people facing jail time have a constitutional right to an attorney — an argument sometimes called ‘Civil Gideon’ in reference to the Supreme Court’s decision finding a right to counsel in criminal matters.
Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote Monday’s 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 Turner was never told his ability to pay was the crucial question at his civil contempt hearing and the state court never even officially determined whether Turner he 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.
The case now goes back to the South Carolina state courts.
The matter was one of several decided yesterday, including the Wal-Mart bias lawsuit (see related story, page 9A). The court also limited the First Amendment right of government employees, ruling 8-1 in Duryea, Pa. v. Guarnieri that government employers can take adverse actions against employees who speak out on private matters.
Among the certiorari petitions decided yesterday, the court refused to review a federal court’s decision to uphold Congress’s ban on federal funds for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now but agreed to decide whether The Supreme Court will decide whether a pilot who lost his license because he failed to disclose he was HIV-positive can sue the government.