Friday, June 27, 2008

GRANDPARENT RIGHTS UNDER SCRUTINY: Visitation Order Set Aside by Supreme Court Mandamus

Texas High Court says natural mother was improperly denied opportunity to contest temporary visitation rights for paternal grandparents in an evidentiary hearing. Court grants mandamus relief to throw out interim SAPCR order, citing earlier cases affirming principle that the rights of natural parents trump those of nonparents unless grave circumstances rebut the presumption favoring parents.

In Re Chambless,
No. 07-0767 (Tex. 2008) (per curiam) (orig. proc.) (family law, grandparent visitation suit)(mandamus granted) (parental presumption, preference for natural parent as child's custodian)
IN RE STACY D. CHAMBLESS; from Tarrant County; 2nd district (02-07-00291-CV, ___ SW3d ___, 08-23-07) stay order issued October 24, 2007, lifted Pursuant to Texas Rule of Appellate Procedure 52.8(c), without hearing oral argument, the Court conditionally grants the petition for writ of mandamus.

“Possession of or access to a child by a grandparent is governed by the standards established by Chapter 153 [of the Texas Family Code].” Tex. Fam. Code § 102.004(c). A grandparent seeking court-ordered visitation must “overcome[] the presumption that a parent acts in the best interest of the . . . child by proving by a preponderance of the evidence that denial of possession of or access . . . would significantly impair the child’s physical health or emotional well-being.” Id. § 153.433(2).

A trial court abuses its discretion when it grants access to a grandparent who has not met this standard. In re Derzapf, 219 S.W.3d 327, 333 (Tex. 2007) (per curiam).

Stacy complains that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding the paternal grandparents temporary visitation without affording her an opportunity to be heard. She further argues this temporary visitation order violates her fundamental right as a parent. Parents enjoy a fundamental right to make decisions concerning “the care, custody, and control of their children.” Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65 (2000) (plurality opinion). This “natural right which exists between parents and their children is one of constitutional dimensions,” Sw. Bell Tel. Co. v. Garza, 164 S.W.3d 607, 622 (Tex. 2004) (quoting Wiley v. Spratlan, 543 S.W.2d 349, 352 (Tex. 1976)), and is “far more precious than any property right,” In the Interest of M.S., 115 S.W.3d 534, 547 (Tex. 2003) (quoting Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 758-59 (1982)).

“So long as a parent adequately cares for his or her children (i.e., is fit), there will normally be no reason for the State to inject itself into the private realm of the family.” In re Mays-Hooper, 189 S.W.3d 777, 778 (Tex. 2006) (per curiam) (quoting Troxel, 530 U.S. at 68). The State “[cannot] infringe on the fundamental right of parents to make child rearing decisions simply because a state judge believes a better decision could be made.” Derzapf, 219 S.W.3d at 333 (quoting Troxel, 530 U.S. at 68).Here, the paternal grandparents concede Stacy is a fit parent and acknowledge Stacy would likely talk to J.A.C. about his father. Stacy also argues that if given the opportunity, she would present evidence that denying the grandparents visitation is in her child’s best interest. A parent must be given a meaningful opportunity to be heard before a trial court awards temporary grandparental visitation. Cf. In the Interest of J.W.T., 872 S.W.2d 189, 198 (Tex. 1994) (Hecht, J., concurring) (noting “that in a free society the State cannot deny a [parent] all right to his child without due process”); see also Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 651 (1972) (finding that a parent’s right to “the companionship, care, custody, and management of his or her children” is an important constitutional interest that “undeniably warrants deference and, absent a powerful countervailing interest, protection”). Thus, the trial court abused its discretion in awarding the paternal grandparents temporary visitation with J.A.C. without affording Stacy a meaningful opportunity to be heard.

Without hearing oral argument, we conditionally grant mandamus relief and direct the trial court to vacate its August 14, 2007 temporary order granting grandparental visitation. Tex. R. App. P. 52.8(c). We are confident the trial court will promptly comply; our writ will issue only if it does not.

Links: Grandparent and nonparent child custody suits and intervention in Texas Other Family Law Rulings from the Texas Supreme Court

For grandparents rights cases in the Texas Courts of Appeals (most of which not reviewed by the state Supreme Court, see Texas Grandparents Rights TX (Case Law Blog of Grandparent custody, access, visitation)

No comments: