MBA files amicus brief in support of right to counsel for indigent defendants in civil contempt hearings

Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020

mbasealThe Massachusetts Bar Association filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in the case of Department Of Revenue Child Support Enforcement & Another v. Grullon (SJC 12784), urging the Supreme Judicial Court to recognize a defendant’s constitutional right to a lawyer in civil contempt hearings due to nonpayment of child support when there is a possibility of imprisonment. The MBA’s brief was joined by the Boston Bar Association and Boston College Law School Professor Mark Spiegel, and it also received a letter of endorsement from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. The SJC heard oral arguments in the case today (Jan. 9). Veterans Legal Services, a Massachusetts Bar Foundation grantee, represented the defendant, Joshua Grullon, on appeal.

In the underlying case, the defendant was found in civil contempt for nonpayment of child support and sentenced to 10 days in jail, which he has since served. During the civil contempt hearing, Department of Revenue lawyers represented the interests of the defendant’s former spouse, but the defendant did not have a lawyer. The defendant argues on appeal that the finding of contempt was in error since his due process rights were violated when he was not appointed counsel during the hearing where he faced the possibility of going to jail.

In its brief, the MBA argues that legal precedents under both the U.S. Constitution and the Massachusetts Constitution, which provides even stronger protections under its Declaration of Rights, require a reversal of the contempt order and a determination that the right to counsel attaches whenever an indigent defendant is facing government lawyers and has a realistic risk of incarceration for nonpayment of debt. 

Click here to read the amicus brief.