Happy Fathers Day! Justice Thomas Does Not Want To Make It Easier For “Deadbeat Dads” To Avoid Paying Child Support (and Roberts and Alito do not join this part either)

June 20th, 2011

I suppose the timing of Turner v. Rogers was apt, as yesterday was Father’s Day. Justice Thomas spent almost 3 pages discussing “deadbeat dads” who do not pay child support.

It is noteworthy that Roberts and Alito did not join the entirety of Part III. Only Justice Scalia joined. They also did not join part I-A, which provided an originalist understanding of the right to counsel.

Here are a few choice quotes:

The interests of children and mothers who depend onchild support are notoriously difficult to protect. Less than half of all custodial parents receivethe full amount of child support ordered; 24 percentof those owed support receive nothing at all..

That some fathers subject to a child support agreementreport little or no income “does not mean they do not havethe ability to pay any child support.” Rather, many “deadbeat dads”5 “opt to work in the underground economy” to“shield their earnings from child support enforcementefforts.”  To avoid attempts to garnish their wages orotherwise enforce the support obligation, “deadbeats” quittheir jobs, jump from job to job, become self-employed,work under the table, or engage in illegal activity.6

What is unwritten here, is that by providing “deadbeat dads” with more process–such as the right to counsel–, it will make it even harder for spouses to collect child support.

Because of the difficulties in collecting payment through traditional enforcement mechanisms, many States alsouse civil contempt proceedings to coerce “deadbeats” intopaying what they owe. The States that use civil contempt with the threat of detention find it a “highly effective” toolfor collecting child support when nothing else works.

In this case, Mr. Turner only paid up after he was held in contempt.

This case illustrates the point. After the family courtimposed Turner’s weekly support obligation in June 2003, he made no payments until the court held him in contemptthree months later, whereupon he paid over $1,000 to avoid confinement. App. 17a–18a, 131a. Three more times, Turner refused to pay until the family court heldhim in contempt—then paid in short order. Id., at 23a– 25a, 31a–34a, 125a–126a, 129a–130a.

In a somewhat peculiar turn, Justice Thomas asserts that the majority, an opinion joined by no less than Justice Ginsburg, “does not account for the interests that children and mothers.”

Although I think that the majority’s analytical frame-work does not account for the interests that children and mothers have in effective and flexible methods to secure payment, I do not pass on the wisdom of the majority’s preferred procedures. Nor do I address the wisdom of the State’s decision to use certain methods of enforcement.

Not surprising the Chief and Alito did not join this section. Yikes. Calling Justice Ginsburg insensitive to the interest of children and mothers is some chutzpah.

Rather than giving them counsel, Thomas seems comfortable to have dads just pay up, even it it means sitting in jail while on contempt of court.

Whether “deadbeat dads” should be threatened with in-carceration is a policy judgment for state and federallawmakers, as is the entire question of government in-volvement in the area of child support.

Thomas also has a parting salvo–discussing the “shift away from the nuclear family”–that will no doubt be picked up in the broader context of same sex marriage:

This and other repercussions of the shift away from the nuclear family are ultimately the business of the policymaking branches. See, e.g., D. Popenoe, Fam-ily in Decline in America, reprinted in War Over the Fam-ily 3, 4 (2005) (discussing “four major social trends” thatemerged in the 1960’s “to signal a widespread ‘flight’” from the “nuclear family”); Krause, Child Support Reas-sessed, 24 Fam. L. Q. 1, 16 (1990) (“Easy-come, easy-gomarriage and casual cohabitation and procreation are on acollision course with the economic and social needs of children”); M. Boumil & J. Friedman, Deadbeat Dads 23–24 (1996) (“Many [children of deadbeat dads] are born out of wedlock . . . . Others have lost a parent to divorce atsuch a young age that they have little conscious memory of it”).

I am confused with the Chief let Justice Thomas write this dissent, considering he joined so little of it.