High Court hears arguments on right to counsel in civil contempt proceedings with possible jail time

BY Jon Mosher on Thursday, March 24, 2011 at 12:23 PM

On March 23, 2011, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Turner v. Rogers – a case squarely addressing whether an indigent person can be jailed on civil contempt without being given a lawyer to represent him.  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 had previously ruled that Turner’s sentence was coercive (to pressure him to pay child support) rather than punitive, and so he had no right to counsel. Turner’s lawyers countered that his sentence became punitive simply because of his inability to pay child support costs. The New York Times provides a recap of the argument, and the justices’ reactions to the issue before them.

The Supreme Court also heard arguments in J.D.B. v North Carolina, which focused on whether police have to give Miranda warnings when questioning children at school or, more broadly, whether a child’s minority status forces courts and law enforcement to consider him “in custody” when being questioned by police. SCOTUSblog has full analysis of the arguments in this case. The Seattle Times also offers a recap of both cases: J.D.B v. North Carolina, and Turner v. Rogers.

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