Criminal Law in a Civil Guise: The Evolution of Family Courts and Support Laws

69 Pages Posted: 27 Apr 2018 Last revised: 24 Oct 2019

See all articles by Elizabeth D. Katz

Elizabeth D. Katz

University of Florida Levin College of Law

Date Written: September 2019


Each year family courts incarcerate thousands of Americans for nonpayment of child support. The vast majority of these parents are not accorded criminal procedure protections because courts have characterized routine child support enforcement as a “civil” matter. The United States Supreme Court has endorsed this approach. In Turner v Rogers, the Court began from a premise it regarded as both legally significant and unquestionably true: that child support proceedings are civil. On that basis, the Court determined that an indigent father facing a year in jail was not entitled to a public defender. The Court’s analysis reflects a broader and widespread assumption that family law is a civil field. Recent scholarship has challenged that understanding by examining how criminal law and family law work in tandem to police certain conduct. This Article goes further by demonstrating that modern support duties and the family courts that enforce them evolved from criminal laws and courts.

Relying on extensive historical research, this Article argues that child support enforcement is criminal law in a civil guise. Family nonsupport was criminalized around the turn of the twentieth century to permit extradition of offenders. Criminal court judges then tasked newly minted probation officers with reconciling, investigating, and monitoring families — novel state interventions in domestic life. Probation officers, in turn, staffed and promoted specialized criminal nonsupport courts (initially called “domestic relations courts” and later “family courts”) that some cities opened to handle these prosecutions in the 1910s. Beginning in the 1930s, costs and stigma associated with criminal law led legislators to strategically relabel family courts and support enforcement as “civil,” even while retaining procedures, personnel, and powers drawn from the criminal context. Observers found the ongoing use of criminal-derived oversight methods unobjectionable; the decades in which support law was largely criminal law shifted norms about acceptable and desirable state involvement in family relationships. As the number of civil “child support” suits surpassed nonsupport prosecutions (which all states retained) and probation officers disappeared from family litigation, the criminal heritage and continued criminal-law reinforcement of family courts and support laws were obscured.

The calculated and incomplete conversion of family support enforcement from criminal to civil undercuts the supposedly distinct purposes, procedures, and penalties associated with the civil and criminal categories. Building on scholarship that critiques the Supreme Court’s treatment of statutory schemes that blur the civil-criminal divide, the Article draws from child support history to condemn the Court’s strong deference to legislative labels and to propose greater consideration of enforcement methods. If the Court were persuaded to recognize child support incarceration as a criminal sanction, then states would face a difficult choice. They could either allocate the resources needed for constitutionally mandated criminal procedure protections or decriminalize the enforcement machinery — ideally through elimination of most child support incarceration.

Keywords: family law, criminal law, criminal procedure, child support, probation, civil-criminal divide, contempt, family court, legal history

Suggested Citation

Katz, Elizabeth, Criminal Law in a Civil Guise: The Evolution of Family Courts and Support Laws (September 2019). University of Chicago Law Review, 2019, Available at SSRN:

Elizabeth Katz (Contact Author)

University of Florida Levin College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 117625
Gainesville, FL 32611-7625
United States

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