US Supreme Court Creates Debtors’ Prison
If you think you can’t go to jail merely because you owe someone money, think again. The US Supreme Court ruled Monday that indigent debtors facing contempt of court charges and jail for failure to pay debts in a civil matter are not entitled to pro bono public counsel. In the matter before the court, a divorced father was imprisoned for failing to pay child support.
By a majority 5-4 vote, the justices found that while the South Carolina father’s rights had been violated because he was not given free counsel, States are not constitutionally required to provide legal counsel in civil contempt cases.
In the case before the Supreme Court, Michael Turner had been ordered to pay $51.73 a week in child support. But he had regularly fallen behind, and spent short spells in prison.
On his fifth infraction, the South Carolina family court sentenced him to six months in jail. But on his release he was $5,728 in arrears, and was then sentenced to 12 months in jail.
Turner appealed arguing his constitutional rights had been violated as he had not been given access to free counsel — as is normal in criminal cases — to argue that he had been unable to pay the funds due during his jail term.
Indeed, all persons held in civil contempt are legally entitled to an opportunity to conform with the court order in question or explain why it is impossible to do so. Turner’s confinement certainly made his ability to pay impossible and justified a release from the contempt judgement.
The ruling generated reprisals from civil liberties activists, including the Constitution Project, a bipartisan group working for reform of the justice system.
The ruling “undermines the fundamental fairness of our justice system, putting Americans in danger of losing their liberty simply because they cannot afford a lawyer,” it said in a statement.
“Michael Turner was incarcerated for one year because of his failure to pay court-ordered child support. Although his inability to pay would have constituted a legal defense to incarceration, Mr. Turner was unable to prove his inability to pay to the court.
“With this decision, the Supreme Court has effectively endorsed the expansion of the unjust use of debtors’ prisons in America,” it added.