The Supreme Court ruled 5-3 Wednesday that states may not impose criminal sanctions against parents who are delinquent in paying child support unless it is shown "beyond a reasonable doubt" the parent is financially able to comply.
But the justices, responding to concerns about the growing child support crisis in this country, said civil penalties designed only to pressure parents into paying support are constitutional even if they shift the burden of proof to the delinquent parent.The ruling came in a challenge to a California law that was struck down by the Court of Appeal of California on grounds it violated the Constitution's due process clause.
The high court did not decide whether the California law met constitutional standards but instead remanded the case to a lower court to determine whether the statute was criminal or civil in nature.
Writing for the majority, Justice Byron White said due process is only required when a defendant faces punishment for his actions.
"An unconditional penalty is criminal in nature because it is solely and exclusively punitive in nature," he wrote. "A conditional penalty, by contrast, is civil because it is specifically designed to compel the doing of some act."
In other action, the court:
(SB) Sent back to Oregon courts a case involving whether the state can deny unemployment benefits to drug counselors fired for taking hallucinogenic drugs as part of a native American Indian religious ceremony. The court, in a 5-3 decision, ordered the state court to determine if the religious use of peyote is prohibited by state law.
(SB) Ruled unanimously the Railway Labor Act does not entitle a railroad employee to be represented in a grievance procedure by a union other than his own.
(SB) Dismissed a case involving attempts by the U.S. Postal Service to fire a mail carrier who had failed to deliver thousands of pieces of mail. The decision leaves intact an appeals court ruling reinstating the employee who failed to make his appointed rounds because he was a compulsive gambler. The National Association of Letter Carriers maintained the worker had recovered and was fit to return to work.