Friday, January 14, 2011

The Right to Appointed Counsel in Civil Contempt Matters

In a recent South Carolina Supreme Court case, Turner, the defendant, failed to pay child support in the amount of nearly $6000 and had not made payment in about a year and a half. The lower court held him in willful contempt of court and sentenced him to twelve months in jail, and this sentence was upheld by the South Carolina Supreme Court. (See Price v. Turner, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion No. 26793).

The United States Supreme Court will hear the case to determine if an indigent defendant charged with civil contempt, as in Price v. Turner, is entitled to an appointed attorney to represent him or her in the case.

The American Bar Association recently filed a United States Supreme Court amicus brief in which they make the argument that appointed counsel should be provided by and paid for by the court when the indigent defendant faces incarceration for contempt, civil or criminal, of court.

The ABA’s arguments state that deprivation of the defendant’s liberty warrants the appointment of counsel. In essence, the argument is that just because the contempt is labeled “civil” in form, the resulting jail time makes the appointment of counsel necessary. The blurring of the lines between civil and criminal matters, as in child support contempt cases, makes this discussion necessary. The U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment provision for the right to assistance of counsel in criminal prosecutions comes into play as well. Just because these cases are being labeled “civil” does not mean that they are not actually criminal prosecutions, bringing with them Sixth Amendment protections.

An economical discussion also is found in the ABA’s amicus brief which states that while appointed counsel will cost the state money, appointed counsel will also be able to “guard against the improper use—and the costs—of incarceration.

In sum, this case will be heard by the United States Supreme Court and many questions will hopefully be answered to determine whether civil contempt defendants, when facing incarceration, will be entitled to appointed counsel.

Rachel Rieger

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