Supreme Court decisions on due process, First Amendment

June 20, 2011

A sharply divided Supreme Court refused to require states to provide lawyers for poor people in civil cases involving incarceration but ordered state officials to ensure that hearings are “fundamentally fair” to the person facing possible detention.

The justices voted 5 to 4 to uphold the appeal of Michael Turner, a South Carolina man sent to jail for up to 12 months after he insisted he could not afford his child-support payments.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who wrote the opinion for the court’s four liberal-leaning justices and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, said “the Due Process Clause does not always require the provision of counsel in civil proceedings where incarceration is threatened.”

But Breyer said that Turner was never told that his ability to pay was the crucial question, that no one provided him with a form to disclose his financial information and that the state court never officially determined whether Turner had the ability to pay the child support.

“Under these circumstances, Turner’s incarceration violated the Due Process Clause,” Breyer said.

The court’s four conservative justices dissented.

The case is Turner v. Rogers.

Government workers’ First Amendment rights are limited

The court limited the First Amendment rights of government employees, saying a police chief cannot sue over employer retaliation that came after he spoke out on a pay matter.

The high court overturned a ruling for former Duryea, Pa., police chief Charles Guarnieri. After he won a union grievance, city officials denied his request for overtime pay. Guarnieri contended the denial was retaliation for his union grievance.

But the high court ruled 8 to 1 that government employers can take adverse actions against employees who speak out on private matters.

The case is Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri.

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