The Story Behind Turner v. Rogers

“I paid a little bit here and there. And, when I finally did get to working, I broke my back, back in September. I filed for disability and SSI. And, I didn’t get straightened out off the dope until I broke my back and laid up for two months. And, now I’m off the dope and everything. I just hope that you give me a chance. I don’t know what else to day. I mean, I know I done wrong, and I should have been paying and helping her, and I’m sorry. . . .”

That’s what Michael Turner tried to explain to the South Carolina Family Court in Oconee county on January 3, 2008. It was surely a heartfelt plea but it mattered not; he was sent to the Oconee County jail for being $5,728.76 in arrears for the child support owed to the State of South Carolina on behalf of Rebecca Rogers. In fact, this was not the first time he was placed in jail. On three other occasions from 2003 to 2008 the state had successfully brought “rule to show cause” proceedings against Mr. Turner. In each instance, the proceedings resulted in Mr. Turner’s incarceration and, in the last instance, liens being placed on the Social Security disability benefits Mr. Turner was to receive.

The facts are all-too-familiar. In 1996, Ms. Rogers gave birth to B.L.P. Seven years later, she sought child support for B.L.P. and, with assistance from the State, determined that the father was Mr. Turner. In June of 2003, the Oconee Family court ordered a determination of financial responsibility and ruled Mr. Turner had an obligation to B.L.P. When this order was entered, Mr. Turner was held responsible for payments of $51.73 each week retroactive to the date that proceedings were instigated, meaning he was automatically in arrears.

Thus the start of a cycle. Mr. Turner struggled to find employment and battled drug addiction. When he would be unable to pay his weekly requirements, the clerk of courts would automatically order a rule to show cause hearing pursuant to the South Carolina’s procedural requirements. Mr. Turner would go to jail where he would be unable to pay or even look for work. When he got out, it wouldn’t be long before he was once again haled into court. At the Jan 2008 hearing, Mr. Turner tried to explain his situation but without counsel, he was unable to demonstrate his indigent status and inability to pay. With the aid of counsel, he could have avoided jail– yet the South Carolina law on point was silent as to an indigent’s right to appointed counsel in civil contempt proceedings.

After this 2008 ruling, counsel acting pro bono decided to help Mr. Turner by appealing this ruling on the grounds that he was entitled to appointed representation. The challenge was filed in the South Carolina Court of Appeals but not taken particularly seriously by the Department of Social Services— they didn’t even respond. However, the South Carolina Supreme Court acted on its own initiative and certified the appeal to itself before the appeals court could take any action.

Just a little less than a year ago, the South Carolina Supreme Court came down with a ruling, finding that Mr. Turner’s case didn’t warrant court-appointed counsel because his incarceration was not “unconditional” but rather could be relieved upon his payment. Price v. Turner, 691 S.E.2d 470, 472 (S.C. 2010). In their ruling, the South Carolina Supreme Court made an acknowledgment: they were taking a minority view. Id. Most states would mandate legal representation for Mr. Turner.

This March, the United States Supreme Court will take up that logic in Turner v. Rogers, 10-10. The case will generate a lot of contemplation on the legal requirements set down by Gideon and its progeny, people will make predictions on how the Justices will rule, legal scholars will opine on the substance of the arguments, and it will become easy to forget that behind these abstract legal questions about 6th amendment rights there is a man– a humble, indigent, father who’s had his share of struggles in life.

It will be easy to forget that, but let’s try not to. Let’s try to remember that the foundations of this case rest on a poor man, his 15 year-old child, and a mother struggling to pay the bills. Let’s try to remember that this case is ultimately an unfortunate testament to the difficult realities facing parents and their children living below the poverty line.

-Zachary Cloud

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