High Court asked whether poor can be jailed on contempt without lawyer

BY Jon Mosher on Friday, January 14, 2011 at 2:55 PM

The United States Supreme Court has been asked to hear a case squarely addressing whether an indigent person can be jailed on civil contempt, without being given a lawyer to represent him.  In Turner v. Rogers, Michael Turner served a year in prison when he was held in contempt by a South Carolina court for failing to timely pay child support, but he had to represent himself in court and had no lawyer to represent him.  "The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled the sentence was coercive, rather than punitive, and Turner had no right to a lawyer," explains the ABA Journal.

The U.S. Supreme Court has, through Gideon v. Wainwright and fifty years of case law, consistently held that anyone facing jail time is entitled to counsel.  Several national organizations have submitted amicus briefs urging that indigent people facing jail for civil contempt should receive appointed counsel, including: NLADA, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and The Brennan Center in a joint amicus brief; The Constitution Project; and the American Bar Association.

Interestingly, the U.S. Solicitor General filed a brief urging the court to grant cert and reverse the decision of the South Carolina Supreme Court -- but not on right to counsel grounds.

For all of the pleadings filed in the Supreme Court and to track the case, go here.