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A Connecticut child-support magistrate ignored state and federal laws by ordering a permanently disabled man to pay child support, according to attorneys from Connecticut Legal Services, who recently asked the state supreme court to reverse a decision forcing Michael Giardino to pay $12 a week for his 15-year-old son. Connecticut Legal Services (CLS) attorney Martin Wheeler on Jan. 12 told members of the high court that Giardino was left totally disabled from a spinal cord injury in a 1993 car accident. He receives income solely from Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Wheeler argued, so child support payments could not be taken from his check, because the SSI payment is a form of public assistance. Wheeler argued that Connecticut’s child support guidelines are explicit on the issue: SSI and food stamps are forms of government public assistance grants that cannot be used in considering a person’s gross income as means of payment. Wheeler’s gross income from SSI, plus state benefits and food stamps, is $828 a month. In addition, Wheeler said the court order for Giardino to pay child support from his SSI violated federal law and the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution. In 1996, a family-support magistrate entered a child-support award by default when Giardino, who had once paid support through money that he won in a settlement, did not show up for court. The matter was heard again three years later when Giardino requested a motion for modification. He was finally told by Magistrate Denise Langley to pay $12 a week in support, plus $1 a week toward an arrearage of $4,850. Giardino filed an appeal with the Superior Court, but Judge Anne Dranginis upheld Langley’s order, as did the Appellate Court last year. At the heart of Wheeler’s argument before the state supreme court was Langley’s rationale that the best interest of the child justified a deviation from the guidelines. In a brief written on behalf of Giardino by Wheeler and CLS attorneys Joanne Lewis, Terrence Real and Claudine Siegel, the lawyers cited the court’s rulings in Feliciano v. Feliciano and Favrow v. Vargas, both of which undercut such reasoning. “Neither the magistrate nor the court acknowledged that SSI is a needs-based public assistance benefit which is not available to support the needs of anyone other than the intended recipient,” Wheeler wrote in the brief. “For this court to uphold the child support order in this case would be to frustrate the purposes of both the Connecticut Child Support Guidelines and the SSI program itself.” Assistant Attorney General Patricia Pac argued Marrocco v. Giardino on behalf of the state, asserting that it is not an abuse of discretion for Langley to deviate from the guidelines. Langley, who suggested that Giardino explore the possibility of vocational rehabilitation, said Giardino could afford to pay the $12 a week in support, since he was paying the same amount each week for cable television. Seven state agencies, including Connecticut’s Legal Rights Project and the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, filed a collaborative amicus curiae brief supporting Giardino. During the hearing Jan. 12, Justice William Sullivan asked Wheeler how Giardino could use his SSI money; Wheeler responded that the man could spend the money as he saw fit. “He could use it for illegal purposes, but he doesn’t have to pay child support?” Sullivan said, affirming Wheeler’s response. Justice David Borden said that, although he agreed that cable television is a “necessity of life” for someone living with a disability, Giardino’s cable payments seemed “high.” The justices, who had only a few questions for Wheeler, seemed impatient with Pac for dodging questions on whether the state would concede that SSI was not available under federal law for child support purposes. They also questioned why Pac wrote in her brief that the trial court did not address the issue regarding federal law and the supremacy clause, when, in fact, it was addressed.

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