The Supreme Court of Texas held oral arguments on April 22 in the case of In re C.J.C., case number 19-0684, dealing with parental rights.
The case challenges a Texas law that allows a third party to sue a fit parent for visitation if the question at law is considered a continuation of an earlier custody dispute. In this case, the live-in fiancé of a mother who died has challenged the father—who is legally the only remaining parent to the child—for custody as a continuation of the late mother’s custody order.
The Parental Rights Foundation filed an amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief in this case last December. You can read that brief in its entirety here.
The oral arguments were held after both sides and all of the justices had the opportunity to read our brief and those of other interested parties on either side.
Particularly of interest for those who like to dig deeper, the oral argument session is available online. A Texas quarantine caused the court and attorneys to meet by video conference, so the one-hour event was recorded and made available on YouTube.
Under court rules, each party gets a set amount of time to address the court and answer the court’s questions. In this case, the lawyer for the father shared some of her time with two of the amici (friends of the court): Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) and the Attorney General’s Office for the State of Texas.
Attorney Robert Henneke of TPPF urged the court to consider the “fit parent presumption” to be incorporated into “the ‘best interest’ standard.” In other words, any time a statute requires the court to make a decision according to “the best interest of the child,” as in this case, the court must include as its starting point that “natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children.” Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584 (1979), at 602.
Texas’ Assistant Solicitor General Nathalie Thompson encouraged the same interpretation, perhaps in part because such an interpretation would allow Texas’ law to stand, even in the face of a parent’s fundamental rights. Regardless, the fact that Thompson was representing Texas as being in the father’s corner is significant.
Still, there are other considerations.
Representing the late mother’s fiancé was attorney Michelle O’Neill, who argued that once a parent or parents have sought court intervention in a custody dispute, they have forever surrendered their rights to parent without intervention. She argued that the father, through an earlier custody proceeding with the child’s mother, willingly gave up his right to be presumed a fit parent able to make his own decisions for his child.
Under O’Neill’s theory, since the court got involved between the father and the late mother, “the court continues its jurisdiction over the child regardless of the death of the parent.”
Another theory, and one I think more reasonable, is that the earlier dispute between father and mother has become moot with the passing of one of the parties (in this case, the mother).
The briefs were filed earlier, and now the oral arguments have been heard. While it is impossible to say with certainty, and while Attorney O’Neill did a powerful job presenting the other side, I believe I like the father’s chances.
Of course, we cannot know whether the court agrees with the father or not until the ruling is issued, and at this point, no one knows for sure when that will be. The current COVID-19 situation is having an effect on court schedules all over the country.
But you can rest assured we will keep you posted on every development in this case.
Thank you for supporting the work of the Parental Rights Foundation in cases like this and in all our efforts to promote policies that protect families—and children—by defending your parental rights.
If you are able, please consider making a donation today to continue this vital work.