Posted By JerriCook on April 9, 2015
While the majority of Americans know they have a right to counsel when charged with a crime where imprisonment is the punishment, most don’t know that the right wasn’t applicable to the States until 1963 when the Supreme Court decided the case Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963). The court reasoned that the Sixth Amendment guaranteed this right in criminal actions. However, there is no such guarantee for civil actions, even those where a fundamental right is concerned. Only Massachusetts has recognized a right to an attorney in civil actions where the guardianship of a child is at issue. In every other state, parents whose children have been removed from their custody are not entitled to representation, with disastrous results.
In a recent case involving the death of a child, an Alabama grandmother was convicted of murder after forcing her nine-year-old granddaughter to run for hours. The girl’s father had custody of her after he used child protective services to harass the mother and hired an attorney to pressure her into giving up custody. After that, he took the child away, in direct violation of the custody agreement. The girl’s mother fought to regain custody of her for over three years. She was granted visitation rights in time to hold her daughter as she died. One cannot help but wonder if the outcome would have been different if the child’s mother would have had the benefit of counsel.
What are the public policy considerations, pro and con, when considering amending the U.S.Constitution to guarantee legal representation in civil proceedings where the individual’s life, liberty, or property interests are at stake?