Summary of Tuner v. Rogers Opinion

I’ve had a chance to read through the opinion and I’m posting a quick summary of it on my lunch break. Apologies for any typos found in my earlier post this morning, I was trying to type on the move with a smart phone…not a good foundation for success.

I. HOLDING

By a vote of 5 to 4, the Supreme Court vacated Michael Turner’s contempt of court sentence, holding that his Due Process Rights (14th amend.) were violated since he was not given proper notice about the necessity of proving inability to pay. Nevertheless, the Court found that there is not a categorical right to counsel in civil contempt proceedings when a defendant may be facing incarceration. Justices Breyer, Kennedy, Kagan, Sotomayor, and Ginsburg were in the majority. Justices Thomas, Scalia, Roberts, and Alito were in dissent

II. KEY POINTS OF MAJORITY DECISION

There were two issues on appeal. The first was whether the case was moot. The Court held that it was not, finding that it satisfied the “capable of review, yet evading repetition” doctrine.

The second issue was whether an indigent defendant facing imprisonment has a categorical right to counsel when faced with possible incarceration during a civil contempt hearing.

While the Court found no categorical right (relying heavily on Gagnon v. Scarpelli, 411 U.S. 778 (1973), it did find that certain procedural safeguards were required to ensure Due Process was afforded. Looking to the Mathews v. Eldridge framework (see 424 U.S. 319, 335 (1976)), the Court determined that the straightforward nature of child support proceedings, the lack of representation by the moving party (i.e. the custodial parent), and the existence other procedural safeguards outside of appointment of counsel all suggested that requiring appointment of an attorney was not mandated in order to achieve due process.

Explaining the “other procedural safeguards,” the Court said that a defendant must have (1) notice to the defendant that his ‘ability to pay’ is a critical issue in the contempt proceeding; (2) the use of a form (or the equivalent) to elicit relevant financial information; (3) an opportunity at the hearing for the defendant to respond to statements and questions about his financial status, (e.g., those triggered by his responses on the form); and (4) an express finding by the court that the defendant has the ability to pay

Finding that the family court in Turner’s situation did not afford him the proper requirements set forth above, the Court vacated his sentence.

III. DISSENT

Thomas authored a dissent, which Scalia joined in full and Justices Roberts and Alito joined in part. The main take-away was that the majority improperly went beyond the scope of the questions presented. Thomas and Scalia also made comments regarding the originalist approach to finding no categorical right and remarks about the problems mothers face when it comes to getting money from deadbeat dads.

A more detailed analysis to follow later. For now, I have to get back to work.

-Zachary Cloud

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