485 U. S. 624
April 27, 1988
Phillip Feiock was very delinquent in child support payments, and so a California court imposed a 25 day jail sentence, suspended during a three year probation period. Feiock argued that he was financially unable to pay child support, and that the government should have the burden of proving ability to pay before imposing jail time. Under the Due Process clause, the government perhaps would have to prove ability to pay in a criminal case, but not in a civil case. But which was this?
The Court ruled 5-3 that this factual question didn’t have a clear answer, and remanded the case for more clarification (Kennedy did not participate). White said that some questions of the case could not be addressed, because they concerned interpretation of state law. On the civil/criminal question though, precedent was very clear. Criminal cases involved definite, punitive sanctions, like set jail sentences, and fines paid to the court. Civil cases involved conditional, rehabilitative sanctions, like jail time until a condition is complied with, or fines paid to another party. If Feiock made all the child support payments, it was unclear whether the jail time and probation would go away, so White ordered the remand.
O’Connor, joined by Rehnquist and Scalia, dissented. She thought the ruling of the California court was definitely civil. Unlike the majority, she thought it was clear that the jail time and probation would be gone if Feiock simply complied with the child support payment schedule. In my opinion, the facts were unclear enough that a remand was warranted, but regardless, I have to say that I hate the common assumption that civil proceedings do not require Due Process. Civil actions can sometimes destroy your life worse than criminal actions, and defendants do deserve some protection against getting rear-ended by horrible, unjust decisions.
Sorry for going a bit MRA here, but the cold, unforgiving self-righteousness of the child support system really turns me off. It’s a near lawless racket where innocent children are used as vicious clubs against imperfect men. Google the story of Carnell Alexander, and remember that there are many more like him who never even make the news. It’s a literally kafkaesque world out there, and so long as self-righteous demons make it impossible to stand up for ‘deadbeat dads,’ nothing will ever change.