Supreme Court: Deadbeat Dads Have No Right to Counsel

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on June 22, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

With the release of its decision in Turner v. Rogers, the Supreme Court has ushered in a new era of child support enforcement in the nation's courts.

According to the Supreme Court, deadbeat dads that face incarceration for failing to pay child support are not entitled to free counsel under the Sixth Amendment.

However, they are entitled to some procedural safeguards.

When a parent fails to pay court-ordered child support, a judge has the option of holding him in contempt of court, which can be punished with incarceration.

The plaintiff, who was unable to afford an attorney, sued after being sentenced to 1 year behind bars for this very reason.

His attorneys argued that, because he faced incarceration, he was entitled to a court-appointed attorney under the 6th Amendment.

As the Supreme Court notes, the 6th Amendment's right to counsel only applies to criminal cases. When a person is punished for failing to comply with a support order, he is being charged with civil contempt.

Therefore there is no 6th Amendment right to counsel.

However, the majority goes on to say that, under the 14th Amendment's right to due process, "a court may not impose punishment 'in a civil contempt proceeding when it is clearly established that the alleged contemnor is unable to comply with the terms of the order.'"

What does this mean for future cases?

According to the Supreme Court, deadbeat dads cannot be sentenced to prison for failing to pay child support unless they have had the chance to present significant evidence of their financial status and the court has made a determination that they have the means to make payments but have chosen not to.

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