SCOTUS Rules Against Automatic Representation in “Civil Gideon” Cases – But Suggests Safeguards to Prevent Wrongful Incarceration

Criminal Defense Lawyers who have long been fans of the 1980 TV movie classic Gideon’s Trumpet starring Henry Fonda will be interested to know that the SCOTUS opinion today ruled that civil litigants are not entitled to automatic legal representation, even if they face jail time.

The film, on the subject of legal representation for all criminal defendants, was based on the book by Anthony Lewis, which followed the real-life Gideon v. Wainright case. This decision, aptly detailed in The Champion (of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers), held that criminal defendants, whether they can afford counsel or not, have a Constitutional right to a court-appointed attorney.

Prior to the Supreme Court finding in that case, defendants like Gideon were told they had to have committed a capital offense to have the state appoint—and pay for—-a lawyer to represent them.   Along similar lines, civil advocates had hoped that the Supreme Court would recognize what had come to be known as “civil Gideon rights”—the right, in  civil cases that carry a risk of incarceration, to legal representation in legal proceedings.

But today this notion was struck down when, in Turner v. Rogers, the court ruled 5-4 that “the Due Process Clause does not always require the provision of counsel in civil proceedings where incarceration is threatened.”  Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote the majority opinion.

The case involved a South Carolina man who was incarcerated for up to 12 months for missing child-support payments; the defendant claims he could not afford to pay child support.   In his ruling, Breyer noted that in most such child support cases are nonrepresented by counsel.  Providing a lawyer to just the noncustodial parent would possible “create an asymmetry of representation”, Justice Breyer wrote.

The possibility of incarceration was addressed.  The court mandated that states must have procedural safeguards in place to ensure that civil cases that carry such a risk are rendered “fundamentally fair”.  It was further stated that, in such non-payment cases, exhaustive efforts must be made to determine whether the parent is truly able to pay child support, before the parent is jailed.

Importantly, the court laid out a blueprint of safeguards that states could put in place to ensure that civil litigants are not wrongly incarcerated.

To read more about Gideon v. Wainright, the “seismic” case which overturned Betts v. Brady, go here:   To read more about today’s court decision, go here:



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