20 June 2011

Counsel Sometimes Required In Civil Contempt Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court held today that there is sometimes a right to counsel in civil contempt case, typically brought to secure compliance with child support orders by imprisoning self-employed people or people who have access to assets beyond the reach of the court's jurisdiction (such as funds in an asset protection trust) by incarcerating them until they comply.  Civil contempt remedies are available in a wide variety of civil cases, but is rarely permitted in ordinary debt collection cases and in other cases (typically involving alleged violations of court injunctions), the parties typically are not indigent and have or have access to legal counsel.

Typically, in these cases, the critical issue is whether there is an ability to comply with the court order.  Incarceration for non-payment when there is a mere inability to pay (a remedy once called "body execution") is an unconstitutional debtor's prison remedy. 

The existence of the child support judgment and the fact that it has not been paid is typically self-evident from the record.  But, the existence of income not succeptible to garnishment, or of assets that cannot simply be levied upon with a writ of execution is often hotly contested.  The fact that a mistake on this point renders the incarceration not just inaccurate but unconstitutional makes the stakes particularly important.

I've handled both sides of such disputes for clients myself, and while the black letter law of contempt proceedings is fairly clear, judges and the sheriffs who manage the incarcerations are often confused by them because they are outside the ordinary criminal procedure mold that governs the vast majority of incarceration cases.  The contempt of court remedy is often a critical safeguard in securing compliance from the most evasive and dishonest child support debtors, but is sometimes applied inappropriately to punish people who truly are simply unable to pay, rather than merely unwilling to pay.  For whatever reason, child support debtors are among the most common to refuse to personally acknowledge and concede that they owe a debt even after court rulings to the contrary, so these cases are among the most contentious forms of debt collection actions.

The high court found that while incarceration of people for civil contempt can be allowed in some court systems where there is pro se party friendly environment that calls attention to the critical issues at the hearing and provides a simple form driven way for the unrepresented person to participate in the process, that such incarceration is unconstitutional without a right to counsel provided at state expense when the court system is no friendly to pro se parties or is too complex for an unrepresented person to handle.

Thus, while the South Carolina civil contempt process at issue in  the case before the U.S. Supreme Court failed the test, it is entirely possible that the due process protections for the same kind of proceeding in Colorado might meet the high court's due process standards.

The 5-4 ruling is a departure from most past rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court on procedural due process requirements, which have typically imposed a clear bright line rule in a class of cases, rather than setting forth a more generalized standard to apply on a court system by court system, or even case by case basis.  The conservative dissenters would have found that there was no right to counsel in these cases.

Since state governments, almost to a one, are currently in a very tight fiscal situation and would be hard pressed to pay for court appointed counsel in these cases, the likely response to the ruling will be for state court systems to develop pro se party friendly court procedures for run of the mill child support contempt of court cases.

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