This Note examines the practical consequences of the Supreme Court’s decision in Turner v. Rogers. In 2011, the Supreme Court held that there is no constitutional right to counsel for parents who face civil contempt for failure to pay child support. Although those parents face incarceration, the Court believed that “substitute procedural safeguards” could adequately reduce the risk of wrongful incarceration. Five years have passed since Turner, and although commentators have spilled much ink debating the right to counsel in civil contempt cases, virtually no research exists on Turner’s real-world impact or the effectiveness of the Court’s suggested safeguards.
This Note attempts to fill that gap by documenting how states, judges, and practitioners have responded to the decision. It begins by providing the first comprehensive catalogue of states that actually guarantee the right to counsel for civil contempt hearings. From there, it surveys sixty practitioners in forty-four states to learn how states handle representation in contempt cases. Finally, it draws on extensive interviews with eight current and former family court judges in South Carolina to assess how the state has implemented Turner’s mandate. Using those sources, this Note concludes that the Supreme Court was correct that the right to counsel is no panacea for procedural unfairness—but the Court’s substitute procedural safeguards do not adequately offset the risk of wrongful incarceration. It suggests how the Court can modify its suggested procedural reforms as well as how states and private practitioners can compensate for the representation gap.