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Supreme Court Clinic: Family Law

The Clinic has won a landmark victory for moms seeking child support from “deadbeat dads,” helped a family to keep custody of its adopted child, and preserved a wife’s divorce settlement against her ex-husband’s claim for a bigger share of the pie.

In Turner v. Rogers (2011), a custodial mother had been seeking child support for eight years from a nonsupporting father (often called a “deadbeat dad”). The father claimed that the government first had to give him a free lawyer before he could be forced to pay child support by being held in civil contempt, even though the mother had no lawyer. The Clinic, representing the mother, persuaded all nine Justices that fathers have no automatic right to free lawyers when mothers without lawyers sue them for child support. The Court accepted the Clinic’s main argument that giving a free lawyer to only one side would tilt the playing field and delay support payments to the mothers and children who need them fast.

In Nielson v. Ketchum (2012), an adoptive couple adopted a newborn baby after the birth mother consented under oath in open court. Months later, the birth mother enrolled herself in the Cherokee tribe and claimed that the adoption was invalid under the law of the Cherokee Nation and the Indian Child Welfare Act. The Clinic successfully defeated the birth mother’s certiorari petition, undermining the alleged disagreement about the meaning of the statute and persuading the Court that the case was a poor candidate for review.

In Herald v. Steadman (2015), the divorcing husband was eligible for Social Security benefits but the wife was not, so the divorce court let her keep a larger share of her own pension benefits to compensate. The Clinic successfully defeated the ex-husband’s certiorari petition, explaining the difference between assigning the husband’s own Social Security benefits (forbidden by federal statute) and simply considering their existence in deciding how to allocate other marital assets.