A sharply divided Supreme Court on Monday refused to require states to provide lawyers for poor people in civil cases involving incarceration but did order state officials to ensure that those hearings are "fundamentally fair" to the person facing possible detention.
The justices voted 5-4 along ideological lines to uphold the appeal of Michael Turner, a South Carolina man sent to jail for up to 12 months after he insisted he could not afford his child support payments. Turner had no lawyer, and claimed all people facing jail time have a constitutional right to an attorney.
Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote the opinion for the court's four liberal-leaning justices and Justice Anthony Kennedy, would not go that far, saying "the Due Process Clause does not always require the provision of counsel in civil proceedings where incarceration is threatened."
But Breyer said Turner was never told his ability to pay was the crucial question at his civil contempt hearing, no one provided him with a form that would helped him disclose his financial information, and the state court never even officially determined whether Turner had the ability to pay the child support he owed.
"Under these circumstances, Turner's incarceration violated the Due Process Clause," Breyer said.