Are Court-Appointment Lists Unconstitutional?: Opinions, June 21, 2018

Today the First District Court of Appeals released a memorandum opinion on child support modification, Amudo v. Amudo, No. 01-17-00318-CV, and the Fourteenth released a memorandum opinion on the denial of a protective order, Hassan v. Hassan, No. 14-17-00179-CV, and a really unique published opinion on the constitutionality of the appointments of attorneys ad litem, guardians ad litem, mediators, and guardians under Government Code chapter 37, In re K.L., No. 14-16-01022-CV.

In Amudo v. Amudo, father petitioned to decrease his child support and health insurance obligations. Mother answered. Mother eventually served father with discovery requests which father objected to as being untimely because it was too close to trial. But the trial was continued a couple of times thereafter and father did not amend and answer the requests. At trial, mother objected to father’s evidence on the ground that he did not answer her discovery requests. Father argued mother did not respond to his discovery requests either. But father was the party seeking affirmative relief and, upon mother’s objection, he was not able to testify to his employment, income, and resources because that testimony would have been responsive to mother’s interrogatories. The trial court denied his petition and the COA affirmed.

In Hassan v. Hassan, Elaine filed for a protective order against Tamer. After trial, Tamer moved for directed verdict, which the trial court granted and the COA affirmed. Here is the relevant factual recitation:

The parties proceeded to a bench trial on February 6, 2017. Elaine testified at trial regarding the incidents included in her affidavit. The trial court admitted as an exhibit a photograph of Elaine taken in April 2016; Elaine is pictured wearing a neck brace and has three visible bruises on her right arm.

Elaine testified that Tamer had visited her twice in the three weeks preceding trial. Elaine stated that Tamer did not threaten her with violence during these visits. On cross-examination, Elaine acknowledged that she and Tamer were married twice. Elaine stated that she and Tamer were married in 2005 and divorced in November 2006. Elaine testified that she and Tamer were “common-law married” in December 2006 and “legally” married in 2008.

In response to questioning, Elaine acknowledged that “[a]t any point [she’s] free to go where [she] want[s] when [she] want[s] during the day.” Elaine also stated that she never reported Tamer’s abuse to the police. Elaine testified that she and Tamer currently live about 12-13 miles apart from each other.

Elaine responded “yes” when asked if she was “still afraid of family violence from [Tamer] today?” When asked why she was afraid, Elaine stated “I don’t know. I always go back.”

Elaine rested her case and counsel for Tamer moved for a directed verdict on the grounds that Elaine “has not proved . . . that [Tamer] is, in fact, a threat of future violence, nor is conclusive as to any specific incidents of violence.” The trial court stated that it did “find that the evidence of family violence has been presented” but did not “have any basis for future” violence. The trial court granted Tamer’s motion for a directed verdict.

Perhaps the most interesting decision today is In re K.L., in which the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s determination that chapter 37 of the Government Code was unconstitutional. But the COA’s ruling is based on standing, not the merits of the dispute.

In this case, the maternal grandparents of two minor children petitioned to be named primary conservators for the children. The children’s parents were named as respondents though at the time they did not know the identity of one of the fathers. Under Chapter 37 of the Government Code, the trial court appointed an attorney ad litem for the unknown father. Chapter 37 requires courts in certain counties to create and maintain lists of qualified people who are registered to serve as attorneys ad litem, guardians ad litem, mediators, and guardians. Courts are then generally required to make such appointments on a rotating basis from the lists, but may disregard the lists and appoint someone agreed to by the parties or of the court’s own choosing, so long as there is a finding of good cause and an explanation is provided.

After the AAL was appointed, the grandparents filed a motion to reconsider, arguing chapter 37 violated the separation of powers doctrine in the Texas Constitution both because it infringes on core judicial powers and its vague and undefined use of the word “qualified” requires the judiciary to legislate in the guise of interpreting the statute. The grandparents requested the trial court find the statute unconstitutional, rescind the appointment of the AAL, and appoint an AAL without using the chapter 37 procedures.  The State of Texas was notified of the Constitutional challenge.

Before the motion could be heard, the mother filed a counterpetition identifying the child’s father as an “alleged father.” At the hearing on the motion, the father appeared pro se and the appointed AAL appeared as AAL. The State did not appear or respond to the motion. After the hearing, the trial court granted the motion, held that chapter 37 was unconstitutional because it violated the separation of powers doctrine and vacated the appointment of the AAL. The father’s paternity was subsequently established.

Several months later, the OAG intervened and filed a motion to reconsider the order and declaration that chapter 37 procedures are unconstitutional. The trial court denied the motion. The case proceeded to trial. The grandparents were named primary conservators and the parents were named possessory conservators. The State appealed.

The State argues that the grandparents lacked standing to challenge the constitutionality of chapter 37 because the grandparents had no “concrete and particularized,” “actual or imminent” injury from the appointment of a AAL for one of the fathers. The Court of Appeals agreed. The grandparents responded that they had a justiciable interest in the appointment process because 1) they could potentially be ordered to pay the ad litem’s fees and 2) the ad litem would be involved in a case to determine the best interests of their grandchildren.

With regard to the first argument, the COA ruled that the grandparents could still be on the hook for fees whether or not the father or an AAL appeared in his place. That is, there is nothing about the AAL’s appointment that caused that potential injury.

As to the second argument, the grandparents argued that the chapter 37 procedures unnecessarily hamper the trial court’s ability to match an appropriate AAL with the circumstances in a particular case and that, as the child’s grandparents, they have an interest in assuring that an appropriate ad litem is appointed to represent the unknown father. The COA ruled that these arguments do not present a sufficient interest in the representation of an opposing party to give them standing to contest how that representation is accomplished.

As such, the Court of Appeals ruled the  grandparents lacked standing to challenge the constitutionality of chapter 37 and thus the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to consider the issue. The COA modified the judgment to vacate the trial court’s ruling that chapter 37 is unconstitutional and affirmed the judgment in all other respects.

One can’t help but wonder who could have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the chapter. If the grandparents can’t challenge the provision, then who can? The father? Once the father appears in the suit, wouldn’t the AAL be dismissed and the issue moot? Or would the likelihood of future recurrence allow the issue to be heard? Even then, what injury would the father have to seek relief on? Would he have to show that the judge wanted to appoint a particular AAL that was better suited to represent his capacity but was barred from doing so by the appointment list? But in that circumstance, the trial court can deviate from the list for good cause. The head, it reels. We may have to wait until the trial court in this case (the 257th) gets another case and a party whose capacity was previously represented by an AAL or GAL to challenge the provision. It could be a while before we get an answer… if ever.

 

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