The narrow court majority stressed that the right to a government-paid lawyer must be rare in civil cases. The case before the court involved a South Carolina man jailed for contempt for failing to pay child support.
"The 14th Amendment's due process clause does not automatically require the state to provide counsel at civil contempt proceedings to an indigent non-custodial parent who is subject to a child support order, even if that individual faces incarceration," Justice Stephen Breyer said in the majority opinion.
But he said there were three relevant questions that would determine the need to appoint counsel:
-- The nature of "the private interest that will be affected."
-- The comparative "risk" of an "erroneous deprivation" of that interest with and without "additional or substitute procedural safeguards."
-- The "nature and magnitude of any counter-vailing interest in not providing additional or substitute" procedural requirements.
"The 'private interest that will be affected' argues strongly for the right to counsel here," Breyer said. "That interest consists of an indigent defendant's loss of personal liberty through imprisonment."
The case involves Michael Turner, ordered to pay $51.73 a week to Rebecca Rogers to help support their child. Court records say Turner repeatedly failed to pay and was held in contempt five times.
Neither Turner nor Rogers was represented by an attorney.
At his brief civil contempt hearing, a state judge found Turner in willful contempt and sentenced him to 12 months in prison "without making any finding as to his ability to pay or indicating on the contempt order form whether he was able to make support payments," Breyer said.
After Turner completed his sentence, the South Carolina Supreme Court rejected his claim that the U.S. Constitution entitled him to counsel at his contempt hearing, ruling that civil contempt does not require all the constitutional safeguards applicable in criminal contempt proceedings.
Breyer's opinion throws out the South Carolina Supreme Court ruling and sends the case back down for a new decision based on the high court opinion.