Yesterday the United States Supreme Court accepted certiorari on the South Carolina case of Price v. Turner, 387 S.C. 142, 691 S.E.2d 470 (2010). The question Mr. Turner asked the Supreme Court to address was “Whether the Supreme Court of South Carolina erred in holding – in conflict with twenty-two federal courts of appeals and state courts of last resort – that an indigent defendant has no constitutional right to appointed counsel at a civil contempt proceeding that results in his incarceration.” In addition the United States Supreme Court asked the parties to brief and argue the question “Does the Court Have Jurisdiction to Review the Decision of The South Carolina Supreme Court?”
The United States Supreme Court typically accepts certiorari on a few family law cases each decade. I could not tell you the last time that court accepted certiorari in a South Carolina family law case. For South Carolina family law attorneys who enjoy jurisprudence, it’s exciting that the United States Supreme Court accepted certiorari on a local case.
While I am generally critical of the way that the South Carolina family courts use contempt to enforce child support orders (See: Is the application of civil contempt in South Carolina’s “daddy round-ups” improper?), I actually agree with the South Carolina Supreme Court’s decision that an indigent is not entitled to court appointed counsel to defend charges of mere civil contempt. On the other hand I believe no one in Mr. Turner’s case ever analyzed whether he had the present ability to pay the nearly $6,000 he was ordered to pay to end his civil contempt incarceration, and thus his case is subject to the criticism my blog above noted. However that is not a question either the South Carolina nor the United States Supreme Court has been asked to address.
It is curious that the United States Supreme Court asked the parties to brief and argue whether it had jurisdiction to review the South Carolina Supreme Court decision. Since Mr. Turner’s claim was based on the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and since the United States Supreme Court is always entitled to review state court decisions that rely upon federal constitutional principles, it is unclear why the United States Supreme Court thinks it might not have jurisdiction. I guess we’ll find out later.
Meanwhile, kudos to local attorney Susan Dunn, who was one of the Amici Curiae attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union in support of Mr. Turner in the South Carolina Supreme Court. This is the second case in which she’s been involved where the United States Supreme Court has accepted certiorari; Ferguson v. Charleston, 532 US 67 (2001) was the first. Few attorneys have certiorari accepted in any of their cases. My parents would literally burst with pride if one of my cases made it to the United States Supreme Court. For it to happen twice to an attorney such as Ms. King, who is in private practice and who doesn’t specialize in appeals–especially United States Supreme Court appeals–is quite remarkable.
Eventually, I may need to petition the United States Supreme Court for certiorari in the case of Ware v. Ware, from which I received an adverse ruling in the South Carolina Court of Appeals last month. It’s unlikely the United States Supreme Court will accept certiorari on two South Carolina family law appeals in one decade. What’s good for Mr. Turner may be bad for Mr. Ware.