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June 22, 2011

Turner v. Rogers: A Basis for Cautious Optimism Despite the Opinion’s Flaws

From an Access to Justice and Civil Right to Counsel perspective, the Supreme Court’s decision in Turner v. Rogers provides a basis for cautious optimism despite the opinion’s flaws. It is unsurprising that the Court would decline to find a categorical right to counsel in a fact pattern it viewed as an extension of settled law. Yet, the Court’s actual holding found that Mr. Turner’s due process rights were violated because he “received neither counsel nor the benefit of alternative procedures like those we have described.” Any notion of a civil right to counsel invariably will require some difficult line-drawing. No proponent of such a right claims that all indigent litigants in all civil proceedings are entitled to counsel at the state’s expense.

Many of us recognize that the right to counsel should be viewed as a component of an overarching access to justice strategy. I find it helpful to think of a three-pronged strategy. Prong 1 requires the courts to re-envision their procedures, and the roles of the judges, court-connected mediators to maximize the provision of meaningful access to justice. Prong 2 urges the support of a variety of forms of assistance short of full representation by counsel, paired with careful evaluation of case outcomes to help determine which forms of assistance are sufficient to provide the help needed, and which are not. Prong 3 supports the expansion of a civil right to counsel, where basic human needs are at stake and nothing short of full representation with provide the needed assistance.

Viewed this way, the right to counsel is inevitably tied not only to the rights at issue, but the procedures in place. The more the courts provide meaningful access, and assistance programs are proven to be effective, the smaller the pool of cases in need of counsel may be. The more that procedures deprive litigants of meaningful access and steamroll their claims, the more that appointment of counsel may be required. The Court’s approach is not inconsistent with the idea that the procedures matter in assessing the need for counsel.

So too does the complexity of the case. The Court found the child support cases here to be “sufficiently straightforward,” suggesting a different result as the claims get more complex. The Court adds to the calculus that the opposing party here was unrepresented by counsel. It is not necessarily antithetical to the call for an expanded civil right to counsel to consider the capabilities and circumstances of both parties, suggesting a different result in some settings where the opposing party is a well-funded represented party as opposed to an indigent, unrepresented one. The greater the imbalance of power between the parties, the greater the need for counsel will be.

None of this is to ignore the Court’s pronouncements that might instead set the march toward increased Access to Justice and an expanded Civil Right to Counsel backward. It is disappointing that the Court would characterize (in dicta) its jurisprudence as holding that the right to counsel under federal law exists “’only’ in cases involving incarceration.” Lassiter itself contemplated the possibility of counsel being constitutionally required in cases concerning the termination of parental rights.

The Court disappoints further by relying so heavily on the distinction between criminal and civil and its perceived role of the state. If our courts are to respond to the needs of the public who must turn to the courts – or are forced by others to appear in court – where basic human needs are at stake, we cannot continue to rely on mechanical distinctions that fail to comport with our values and our sense of fairness. If incarceration resulting from civil contempt might lead to a longer imprisonment than incarceration resulting from criminal contempt, it is small solace to those in peril of losing their liberty that their right to counsel turns entirely on the civil/criminal distinction. Moreover, most parents would prefer to serve thirty days in jail than lose custody of their children in a private custody dispute or have their families rendered homeless through eviction, yet the mechanical application of the criminal/civil distinction prioritizes the lesser harm for access to counsel.

Nor should we be comforted by the Court’s reliance on the distinction between cases brought by the State and those brought by private parties. The Court saves for another day the question of contempt proceedings for child support payments owed to the state, but the deprivation of liberty applies equally to defendants owing money to the state or someone else. Homeless families will find little solace in the realization that they were rendered homeless in proceedings in which the government was the landlord, as opposed to a private landlord, including one that might receive government subsidies. In the area of child custody, in the words of one state supreme court justice, a parent is deprived of the care, custody, companionship, and control of the children whether the State takes custody through termination or dependency proceedings or her former husband does through private litigation. The State plays too large a role in regulating the legal relationships and establishing the processes for enforcing our basic rights to hide behind such a distinction.

In the long run, the impact of the Turner decision will be less about its language and more about its application at the state and local level. If the disappointing portions of Turner lead states to roll back their existing provisions for counsel by declaring their procedures sufficient under Turner, or if what is meant by adequate procedures is little more than a rubber stamp, the decision will prove to be a devastating one indeed. If, instead, the decision prompts state courts, legislatures, access to justice commissions and bar associations to engage in a careful examination of the procedures where basic human needs are at stake, and provide counsel where the procedures are lacking, the law is complex or the litigants are on the wrong side of a power imbalance, the decision might prove to be the touchstone for reforms that further access to justice and lead to an expansion of a civil right to counsel.

Russell Engler

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