Friday, June 20, 2014

Family Court Judge Did Not Violate Teenager's Constitutional Rights Excluding Her From Parents' Custody Hearing

By:  Timothy P. Flynn

This is a case with an important message from the Ohio Supreme Court.  Thus, while the In Re AG opinion, released yesterday, does not bind family courts here in Michigan, it is nevertheless instructive.

Since 2001, the teenager, A.G., grew up amid perpetual family court divorce proceedings in both Henry and Ottawa Counties in Northern Ohio.  At one point or other, each parent had custody of A.G.  During these various post-judgment custody battles, each  parent sought to sever all contact with A.G. by the other parent by taking the child out of state.  Pitched battles to be sure.

The entire mess came to a head in 2009 when a custody trial was scheduled to take place in Ottawa County Family Court.  Apparently, by that time, Father's parenting time was supervised; he was seeking unsupervised parenting time.  His then 13-year old daughter moved the family court to terminate all parenting time with her Father and for the right to attend the scheduled hearing to decide these issues.

The family court judge interviewed the teen in chambers in order to ascertain her "reasonable preference" regarding custody and parenting time, as we do here in the Michigan family courts.  But the judge denied the teenager's request to attend the trial.

A.G.'s appeal to Ohio's intermediate appellate court affirmed the family court judge's decision, as did the Ohio Supreme Court yesterday's opinion.  The Ohio High Court ruled that while a minor child has an interest in the ongoing divorce proceedings of her parents, she is not a party litigant with attendant rights to be present for all proceedings.

The Ohio Supreme Court also ruled that a family court judge has the discretion to exclude a minor child from the custody proceedings of her parents and that this exclusion does not violate the child's Due Process rights.

Over here at the electronic divorce attorney, we believe this is the correct decision.  One of our recent divorce trials lasted 10-days and featured the testimony of one of the parties' adult sons.

While a child may [rarely] be called as a witness to testify, they are sequestered from the proceedings.  There is no good reason for a minor child, however, to witness the mud and dirty laundry flung about the courtroom in an ugly divorce proceeding sponsored by her parents.

We hope the family court judges here in Michigan take note of this well reasoned opinion from the Ohio Supreme Court.