A Texas Supreme Court ruling issued Friday constitutes a victory for parents everywhere, and especially for this father in Texas.
“We are beyond excited!” the father told us in a Facebook message on Monday. “It’s our 2020 bright spot.”
The case is In re C.J.C., Relator, and it’s one in which the Parental Rights Foundation submitted an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief last December. The legal question was whether a judge could substitute his/her own version of what’s in “the best interest of the child” for the parent’s decision if the parent has not first been found unfit.
That sounds like a no-brainer, and to us it was. But the details of the case are the sort that many could find confusing.
The Back Story
Abigail’s mother and father had split up, and had a custom mediated parenting agreement. The result was an agreement where each had custody for about 50 percent of the time. Dad had 1st, 3rd, 5th weekends with a few days during the week and mom had 2nd and 4th weekends with a few days during the week. It was a pretty standard arrangement.
In 2017, mom and daughter moved in with Jason. In the spring of 2018 mom and Jason got engaged. Over the course of roughly 10 or so months, Abigail lived with her mother and Jason approximately half the time. Then, tragically, her mother was killed in a car accident in July of 2018.
So here’s where it got complicated.
First the maternal grandparents, and then Jason, sued for joint custody of the little girl. It’s important to note they sued for joint custody; none of them ever contended that the father was unfit or that he shouldn’t have custody of his daughter.
Now, Texas has two different laws that come into play here. Under the grandparent visitation law, the grandparents’ suit was denied because they could not show that the father was unfit or that denying them custody would cause significant harm to the little girl. (In a happy ending for the grandparents, father has never cut them out of Abigail’s life—he includes them for birthdays, other holidays, and similar family gatherings.)
Jason, though, fell under the second law. Under that statute, he filed to have the existing custody arrangement between mother and father modified to allow him to take the mother’s place as sharing custody with the dad.
And that’s a proverbial horse of a different color.
No Going Back
Under Texas law, a modification order doesn’t require a showing of unfitness against the parent as the grandparent statute does.
As Jason’s counsel argued before the Texas Supreme Court in April, the court already exercised “best interest” authority over the girl because the parents had been unable to settle on a custody arrangement for themselves. Once the court was involved in the decision making, she argued, there could be no going back.
But the father’s counsel, along with several organizations submitting amicus briefs (including the Parental Rights Foundation and our friends at both the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Texas Public Policy Foundation), argued that such is not true.
Where two fit parents disagree, the court must serve as tie-breaker. But where only one fit parent remains, the court has no authority to overrule his decision.
The Court’s Decision
And that’s the conclusion the Texas Supreme Court reached, as well, stating, “the fit parent presumption is ‘deeply embedded in Texas law’ as part of the determination of a child’s best interests.”
The court also declared in its decision, “In awarding Jason visitation and overnight possession over Abigail’s father’s objection, the trial court essentially substituted its determination of Abigail’s best interest for her father’s, stating, ‘The court has determined what is in [Abigail’s] best interest, and you are to make this as agreeable as you can force yourself to do.’”
Imagine for a moment being a single parent and having a court tell you to make their decision for your child “as agreeable as you can force yourself to do.” How arrogant on the part of that family court!
Thankfully, the supreme court overturned that decision, concluding that “when nonparents seek court-ordered custody of a child subject to an existing order, under which one or both parents were appointed managing conservators, that parent or parents retain the presumption that protects their fundamental right to determine their child’s best interests.”
This is a tremendous win for parental rights everywhere, and especially in Texas, where this precedent will directly affect any similar future case.
With Honor and Gratitude
When the dad reached out to us on Facebook on Monday, I told him, truthfully, that it was an honor to weigh in on his case and argue for his rights as a parent.
And now I am honored to pass his reply on to each of you, our readers and supporters who make our work possible: “I’m grateful for everything you have done.”
Thank you for standing with us and for making a difference in parental rights law, in Texas courts, and especially in the life of Abigail and her dad.