The question before the Supreme Court seemed simple: Are poor people facing jail time for failing to pay child support entitled to court-appointed lawyers? But the answer the justices gave was complicated, reports the New York Times. In a 5-to-4 decision divided along ideological lines, the court said there is no automatic right to counsel for people charged with civil contempt, at least when the parent seeking to collect child support does not have a lawyer. In those circumstances, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the majority, states must use “substantial procedural safeguards.”
In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said the answer to the simple question the court had agreed to decide is that there is no constitutional right to counsel for people facing jail for civil contempt. He also objected to the court's decision to fashion safeguards based on suggestions from the federal government, which was not a party to the case. Starting with Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963, the Supreme Court has held that poor people facing the loss of liberty for crimes must be provided with lawyers. But those decisions concerned criminal proceedings. The case decided Monday involved a South Carolina man, Michael D. Turner, who was repeatedly held in civil contempt and jailed for not paying child support.