Teen’s Constitutional Rights Not Violated by Excluding Her from Custody Hearing
A trial court did not violate a teenager’s due-process rights or abuse its discretion when it excluded her from a custody hearing in a divorce case, especially after considering whether attending the hearing was in her best interest, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.
The Supreme Court’s 5-2 decision affirms the judgment of the Sixth District Court of Appeals, which held that the trial court had discretion to exclude the teen, a nonparty, from a hearing in custody litigation ancillary to her parents’ divorce. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote the majority opinion.
Other elements of the Supreme Court’s ruling include:
- Clarifying that when a domestic-relations court certifies an ongoing custody case to a juvenile court under R.C. 3109.04(D)(2), matters related to the original divorce-custody case continue to be domestic-relations matters, governed only by R.C. 3109.04.
- Noting that a child is not a proper party in a divorce action or its ancillary custody proceedings, even if she is joined as a party defendant pursuant to Civ.R. 75(B)(2).
- Recognizing that although not a party to the action, a child who is the subject of custody litigation arising from a divorce has an interest in the matter.
The parents of the teen, identified in this case by her initials, A.G., divorced in 2001, when A.G. was 5 years old. During the years leading up to and following the divorce, her parents battled over custody of their daughter. Each parent has at different times had custody of A.G., and both took her out of state to avoid custody orders.
In September 2009, A.G.’s father sought unsupervised visitation with his daughter from the juvenile court. A.G. countered with a motion to end all visitations with her father. She also asked the court to allow her to attend the proceedings. The trial court denied both of A.G.’s requests and granted unsupervised visitation to the father. On appeal, the Sixth District Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court did not err in excluding A.G. from the proceedings. It also rejected A.G.’s claim that the trial court violated her due-process rights. A.G. appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.
In today’s opinion, Chief Justice O’Connor explained that when the Henry County Domestic Relations Court certified the case to the Henry County Juvenile Court it “relinquished its jurisdiction to the juvenile court and transferred the exclusive power to hear the case to it.”
And even when the case was transferred to Ottawa County, the transfer of power remained because “the Ottawa County Juvenile Court was, in turn, clothed with the jurisdiction of the Henry County Domestic Relations Court,” Chief Justice O’Connor wrote.
“Therefore, in deciding a custody issue in a domestic-relations court’s stead, a juvenile court is also required to comply with R.C. 3109.04.”
As to whether A.G. was a proper party to the hearing, Chief Justice O’Connor noted that a court’s jurisdiction in divorce cases is limited by statute and only parents have the statutory authority to invoke the jurisdiction of a domestic-relations court to modify its prior custody decree issued under R.C. 3109.04(A)(1).
A.G. was not a proper party because she lacked the power to invoke the domestic-relations court’s jurisdiction. The appointment of a guardian ad litem under Civ.R. 75 and the fact that the case was certified to a juvenile court still did not change A.G.’s status as a nonparty.
In addition, the majority rejected A.G.’s equal-protection claim because she’s not a party to the case, nor is there any absolute constitutional right of any interested person, including a party, to be admitted to a court proceeding.
Due process concerns do not mandate that a child be permitted to attend a custody hearing, the majority noted. In fact, it may be necessary to “properly” exclude a child under certain circumstances as long as the court considers all the relevant factors in R.C. 3109.04.
R.C. 3109.04 mandates that a child who is the subject of custody litigation must have ample opportunity to be heard on the relevant issues, which can be accomplished several ways including an “in camera” interview.
“Before denying A.G.’s motion to attend trial, the juvenile court interviewed A.G. in chambers, and A.G. thus had an opportunity to convey her wishes and concerns directly to this court,” Chief Justice O’Connor wrote. “Moreover, the court ruled that A.G. would be permitted to appear at the hearing as a witness. A.G. told the court that ‘she believed that she had sufficiently articulated her wishes and concerns in full.’ Emphasizing that A.G.’s interests would be advanced at trial by her attorney and her mother, the juvenile court determined that it was in A.G.’s best interest to go to school, rather than court.”
“Members of this court can debate whether the trial court’s ultimate decision to exclude A.G., then 13 years old, was eminently reasonable or a close call,” Chief Justice O’Connor continued. “But we cannot honestly debate whether the juvenile court abused its discretion in ordering A.G. out of the courtroom and into the classroom. It did not.”
Joining the majority were Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, and Judith L. French. Justice Sharon L. Kennedy concurred in judgment only.
Justice William M. O’Neill wrote a dissent, which was joined by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer.
“A child who is the subject of custody proceedings has a due-process right and a constitutional right to be involved in and present at the proceedings,” Justice O’Neill wrote, citing the open courts provision in the Ohio Constitution.
A court should not restrict a child from attending a custody hearing unless the “totality of the evidence clearly and convincingly demonstrates that exclusion is in the child’s best interest,” he reasoned.
“Although the trial court held an in camera hearing as to the child’s wishes for placement, the trial court did not even analyze whether A.G. was of sufficient age and maturity to attend and participate in those very proceedings,” Justice O’Neill continued. “I cannot join in the majority’s judgment that the trial court’s ruling to exclude her was not an abuse of discretion, as it is patent that the trial court refused to exercise proper discretion in so ruling.”
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