Supreme Court of Georgia Issues Opinion in Miller v. Deal, Case Seeking Right to Counsel for Indigent Parents Facing Jail for Child Support Debt

11th July, 2014
Southern Center for Human Rights

Today, the Supreme Court of Georgia issued its opinion in Miller v. Deal, S13G1197.  The Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals, which had decertified the plaintiff class of pro se, indigent parents who were jailed without being provided counsel, after civil contempt proceedings in which the State was represented by a lawyer.

The Court found that the Miller case could not proceed as a class action because there is no "categorical" right to counsel under the U.S. Constitution for indigent parents facing jail for child support debt, and thus no common question of law for class members.  In its opinion, however, the Supreme Court stated that "due process sometimes may require the appointment of counsel for an indigent parent in a civil contempt proceeding in which the parent is threatened with incarceration."  The Court further stated that as a matter of U.S. constitutional law "perhaps there is even a 'presumptive' right to appointed counsel in some such proceedings if the parent is opposed by government lawyers."  The Court left open the question of whether there is a categorical right to counsel in the circumstances presented in this case under the Georgia Constitution. 

Justice Benham dissented from the decision to affirm the Court of Appeals.  He observed that "the State has fostered a fundamentally unfair system for collecting child support from indigent parents,” a system which “effectively bestows upon DHS a categorical right to counsel.”  In contrast, wrote Justice Benham, "The trial court found in this case that appellant Miller owed $3,000, had less than a dollar in his bank account, and had no assets when he was found in contempt and incarcerated for nonpayment of child support. Had he had a categorical or automatic right to counsel, as does DHS under state law, perhaps he would have avoided jail when he clearly did not have the ability to pay.”