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Court Rules Parent May Be Jailed in Child-Support in California Case

April 27, 1988

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A divorced parent may be held in civil contempt and jailed for failing to pay child support even if not proved financially able to do so, the Supreme Court ruled today.

By an 8-0 vote, the justices said such a finding of civil contempt does not violate constitutionally protected due-process rights.

But the court said a finding of criminal contempt, sparking a jail sentence or fine, would be unconstitutional without proof the parent is able to pay the child support.

Today’s ruling sends back to state courts a California case in which five justices could not determine whether a divorced father had been held in civil or criminal contempt for failing to make child-support payments.

Philip and Alta Sue Feiock were divorced in Orange County, Calif., in 1976. As part of the divorce judgment, Feiock was ordered to pay $225 a month in child support for his three children.

After he failed to make any payments, a court hearing was held in 1984 in which he was ordered to make monthly payments of $150. A second hearing was held in 1985, after Mrs. Feiock complained about not receiving any child support from her ex-husband.

In that hearing, state prosecutors proved Feiock’s knowledge of the earlier court order and his failure to comply with it.

Feiock testified that he had been unable to pay the child support.

A state judge ruled that Feiock was in contempt of court and gave him a 25- day suspended jail sentence. Feiock was placed on three years probation and ordered to begin making the child-support payments or be jailed.

Feiock appealed, and a state appeals court threw out the contempt citation.

The state court said the state’s child-support law creates an unconstitutiona l ″mandatory presumption″ that a parent is able to make the payments - thus relieving prosecutors of proving that fact.

In sending the case back to the California courts, Justice Byron R. White said the high court is uncertain whether Feiock was cited for civil or criminal contempt.

People may be jailed for either form of contempt of court.

Under civil contempt, which is considered coercive, the jailing is indefinite and freedom is granted as soon as the offender complies with the underlying court order.

Criminal contempt is intended to be punishment, and normally involves a specific jail term unrelated to compliance with the court order.

White said that if Feiock would purge his jail sentence by making up his missed payments, ″then his proceeding is civil in nature″ and the state law presumption would not violate due-process rights.

Justices William J. Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens joined White’s opinion.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Antonin Scalia voted to reinstate Feiock’s contempt citation, saying his proceeding clearly was civil, not criminal.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy did not participate in the case.

In other action, the court:

- Raised the possibility that states may deny unemployment benefits to workers fired for using the hallucinogenic drug peyote during religious ceremonies.

In a 5-3 ruling involving two men from Oregon, the justices stopped short of deciding whether there is a constitutional right to take peyote as a religious practice.

- Cleared the way for the reinstatement of a Postal Service letter carrier from Garden City, N.Y., fired for failing to deliver more than 3,500 pieces of mail.

The court let stand an arbitrator’s ruling that Edward Hyde is entitled to his old job.

- Ruled that a railroad worker is not entitled to be represented at an employer’s disciplinary hearing by his own union when a different union is the official collective bargaining agent for employees.

The 9-0 ruling rejected arguments by Paul G. Landers, an engineer who has worked for Amtrak since 1983 on passenger trains in the Northeast.

The child support case is Hicks vs. Feiock, 86-787.

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