Turner argues that indigent defendants facing incarceration through civil contempt hearings should have the right to appointed counsel under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Turner claims that the Court’s Sixth Amendment cases involving the right to counsel focus on the defendant’s need for the guidance that counsel provides, and the seriousness of the stakes involved. Turner asserts that in In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967), the Court determined that a juvenile is entitled to the right to counsel in civil juvenile delinquency hearings, which may result in institutionalization. The Court reasoned the juvenile had a right to counsel because the hearings could result in incarceration comparable to felony prosecution, and because the juvenile requires counsel to navigate the law and present an adequate defense. Similarly, Turner asserts that the Court determined in Vitek v. Jones that a prisoner has a right to counsel in civil commitment proceedings, because commitment results in a substantial restriction of liberty, and the defendant would likely require counsel to adequately exercise and protect his rights. Turner argues that these cases establish the proposition that a defendant in a civil proceeding facing incarceration has the right to counsel.
Rogers claims that Turner’s proposition is incorrect, because the Due Process clause does not create a presumptive right to counsel in civil cases where the defendant may be incarcerated. Rogers explains that the Court in Gagnon v. Scarpelli, 411 U.S. 778 (1973), held that minors do not have the right to counsel when facing commitment to a mental hospital. The Court found a “presumption that there is no right to appointed counsel in the absence of at least a potential deprivation of physical liberty.” Rogers asserts that Lassiter does not create a presumption of a right of counsel; potential incarceration is not in itself sufficient to create an exception to the general rule that there is no right to counsel in civil cases.
Rogers argues that due process does not require counsel for a defendant in a child-support civil-contempt hearing. In order to provide a complete defense, the defendant need only show that he cannot pay by bringing in tax forms, or employment or doctors’ letters. Rogers claims that defendants do not need counsel because there are relaxed procedural and evidentiary rules, no juries, and technical issues involving the statute of limitations or res judicata rarely arise. Rogers declares that if the defendant in a child support proceeding did have a right to counsel then the proceedings would become unbalanced; the child-support-seeking plaintiff would not have a corresponding right to counsel and likely could not afford to hire a private attorney.
The United States agrees with Rogers that Due Process does not require appointed counsel for defendants in child support civil contempt hearings where the defendant could be imprisoned. Nevertheless, the United States argues for reversal because the judge in this case did not provide the defendant with a way to prove that he could not pay the support, thereby violating due process. Inability to pay is a complete defense to a civil contempt charge for non-payment of child support. The United States contends that due process may be satisfied if the family court implements procedures, such as requiring financial forms, affidavits, or preliminary assessments of the defendant’s ability to pay.
‘‘(b) TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE.— ‘‘(1) STRATEGIC PLANNING.—Not later than 90 days after the date of enactment of this subsection, the Attorney General shall begin to provide technical assistance to States and local governments requesting support to develop and implement the strategic plan required under subsection (a)(6). The Attorney General may enter into agreements with 1 or more non-governmental organizations to provide technical assistance and training under this paragraph. ‘‘(2) PROTECTION OF CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS.—Not later than 90 days after the date of enactment of this subsection, the Attorney General shall begin to provide technical assistance to States and local governments, including any agent thereof with responsibility for administration of justice, requesting support to meet the obligations established by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which shall include— ‘‘(A) public dissemination of practices, structures, or models for the administration of justice consistent with the requirements of the Sixth Amendment; and ‘‘(B) assistance with adopting and implementing a system for the administration of justice consistent with the requirements of the Sixth Amendment. ‘‘(3) AUTHORIZATION OF APPROPRIATIONS.—For each of fiscal years 2017 through 2021, of the amounts appropriated to carry out this subpart, not less than $5,000,000 and not more than $10,000,000 shall be used to carry out this subsection.’’. (c) APPLICABILITY.—The requirement to submit a strategic plan under section 501(a)(6) of title I of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, as added by subsection (b), shall apply to any application submitted under such section 501 for a grant for any fiscal year beginning after the date that is 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act.