Michigan Supreme Court Holds One-Parent Doctrine Unconstitutional

On June 2nd, 2014, the Michigan Supreme Court held in a family case that the one-parent doctrine, which held that a family court may order both parents to comply with court orders even when only one parent is found to be an unfit parent, is unconstitutional as a violation of a fit parent's due process rights.

In In re Sanders, Docket No. 146680, the Michigan Supreme Court addressed an appeal in a family case where one parent was found unfit but the other parent was never found to be unfit by the Court.

From the opinion's syllabus:

The Department of Human Services (DHS) petitioned the Jackson Circuit Court, Family Division, to assume jurisdiction over the minor children of Tammy Sanders and Lance Laird after the youngest child was born with drugs in his system. The court, Richard N. LaFlamme, J., removed the child from Sanders’s custody and placed him with Laird, who at the time also had custody of the older child. The DHS subsequently filed an amended petition, alleging that Laird had tested positive for cocaine, that Sanders had admitted using drugs with Laird, and that Sanders had spent the night at Laird’s home despite a court order that prohibited her from having unsupervised contact with the children. At the preliminary hearing, the court removed the children from Laird’s custody and placed them with the DHS. Laird contested the allegations in the amended petition and requested an adjudication with respect to his fitness as a parent. Sanders pleaded no contest to the allegations of neglect and abuse in the amended petition, but Laird declined to enter a plea and instead repeated his demand for an adjudication and requested that the children’s temporary placement be changed from their aunt to their paternal grandmother, with whom Laird resided. At a placement hearing, Laird admitted that he had allowed Sanders to spend one night at his house after the court removed the children from her custody but asserted that the children never saw her that night. Laird also testified that he was on probation for a domestic violence conviction. The court took the placement motion under advisement and maintained placement of the children with their aunt pending Laird’s adjudication. A few weeks later, the DHS dismissed the remaining allegations against Laird, and his adjudication was canceled. Following a review hearing, the court ordered Laird to comply with a service plan, including parenting classes, a substance-abuse assessment, counseling, and a psychological evaluation; restricted his contact with the children to supervised parenting time; and continued placement of the children with their aunt. Laird subsequently moved for immediate placement of the children with him, arguing that the court had no authority to condition the placement of his children on his compliance with a service plan because he had not been adjudicated as unfit. The court denied the motion, relying on the one-parent doctrine derived from In re CR, 250 Mich App 185 (2002), which provides that if jurisdiction has been established by the adjudication of only one parent, the court may then enter dispositional orders affecting the parental rights of both parents. The Court of Appeals denied Laird’s application for interlocutory leave to appeal in an unpublished order, entered January 18, 2013 (Docket No. 313385). The Supreme Court granted Laird leave to appeal. 493 Mich 959 (2013). 

In an opinion by Justice MCCORMACK, joined by Chief Justice YOUNG and Justices CAVANAGH, KELLY, and ZAHRA, the Supreme Court held

Application of the one-parent doctrine impermissibly infringes the fundamental rights of unadjudicated parents without providing adequate process, and the doctrine is consequently unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Due process requires a specific adjudication of a parent’s unfitness before the state can infringe that parent’s constitutionally protected parent-child relationship. 

1. MCL 712A.2(b) governs child protective proceedings generally. MCL 712A.2(b)(1) gives the family court jurisdiction over a child in cases of parental abuse or neglect. Child protective proceedings have two phases: the adjudicative phase and the dispositional phase. Generally, the court determines during the adjudicative phase whether it can take jurisdiction over the child in the first place. Once the court has jurisdiction, it determines during the dispositional phase what course of action will ensure the child’s safety and well-being. With respect to the adjudicative phase, once the court authorizes a petition containing allegations of abuse or neglect, the respondent parent can admit the allegations, plead no contest to them, or request a trial (the adjudication) and contest the merits of the petition. If there is a trial, (1) the parent is entitled to a jury, (2) the rules of evidence generally apply, and (3) the petitioner must prove by a preponderance of the evidence one or more of the statutory grounds for jurisdiction alleged in the petition. When the allegations are proved by a plea or at the trial, the adjudicated parent is determined to be unfit. Under MCR 3.973(A) and MCL 712A.6, the purpose of the dispositional phase is to then determine what measures the court will take with respect to a child properly within its jurisdiction and, when applicable, against any adult. Unlike the adjudicative phase, the rules of evidence do not apply and the parent is not entitled to a jury determination of facts. The dispositional phase ultimately ends with a permanency planning hearing, which results in either the dismissal of the original petition and family reunification or the court’s ordering the DHS to file a petition for the termination of parental rights. 

2. The one-parent doctrine permits the family court to obtain jurisdiction over a child on the basis of the adjudication of either parent and then proceed to the dispositional phase with respect to both parents. The doctrine therefore eliminates the petitioner’s obligation to prove that the unadjudicated parent is unfit before that parent is subject to the dispositional authority of the court. 

3. Included in the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of due process is a substantive component that provides heightened protection against governmental interference with fundamental rights and liberty interests, including the right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children. A parent’s right to control the custody and care of his or her children is not absolute because the state has a legitimate interest in protecting the children’s moral, emotional, mental, and physical welfare, and in some circumstances neglectful parents may be separated from their children. The United States Constitution, however, recognizes a presumption that fit parents act in the best interests of their children and that there will normally be no reason for the state to insert itself into the private realm of the family to further question the ability of fit parents to make the best decisions concerning the rearing of their children. Due process demands that an individual be afforded minimal procedural protections before the state can burden a fundamental right, and the three-part balancing test of Mathews v Eldridge, 424 US 319 (1976), is applied to determine what process is due when the state seeks to curtail or infringe an individual right. The test requires consideration of three factors: (1) the private interest that the official action will affect, (2) the risk of an erroneous deprivation of the interest through the procedures used and the probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards, and (3) the state’s interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirement would entail. In essence, the test balances the costs of certain procedural safeguards (in this case, an adjudication) against the risks of not adopting those procedures. 

4. In CR, the Court of Appeals interpreted MCR 3.973(A) as permitting the family court to enter dispositional orders affecting the rights of any adult, including the parental rights of unadjudicated parents, as as long as the court had established jurisdiction over the child. According to the DHS, the requirement of a dispositional phase obviated an unadjudicated parent’s right to a fitness hearing. Applying the three-part Mathews test, however, led to the conclusion that dispositional hearings are constitutionally insufficient and that due process requires that every parent receive an adjudication hearing before the state can interfere with his or her parental rights. The private interest at stake is a core liberty interest recognized by the Fourteenth Amendment. With respect to the second and third Mathews factors, the state has an interest in protecting the health and safety of minors, which will, in some circumstances, require temporary placement of a child with a nonparent. This interest runs parallel with the state’s interest in maintaining the integrity of the family unit whenever possible, however, and the state’s interest is undermined when a parent is erroneously deprived of his or her fundamental right to parent a child. The state has an equally strong interest in ensuring that a parent’s fitness or lack thereof is resolved before the state interferes with the parent-child relationship. Therefore, the probable value of extending the right to an adjudication to each parent in a child protective proceeding benefits both public and private interests. While requiring adjudication of each parent will increase the burden on the state in many cases, an adjudication would significantly reduce any risk of the erroneous deprivation of the parent’s right. The adjudication is the only fact-finding phase regarding parental fitness, and the procedures afforded parents are tied to the allegations of unfitness in the petition, protecting them from the risk of erroneous deprivation of their parental rights. Dispositional hearings do not serve this same function because the court is concerned at that time only with what services and requirements will be in the children’s best interests. There is no presumption of fitness in favor of the unadjudicated parent. The procedures during the dispositional phase are not related to the allegations of unfitness because the question before the court at a dispositional hearing assumes a previous finding of parental unfitness. Therefore, while extending the right to an adjudication to all parents will impose additional burdens on petitioners, those burdens do not outweigh the risks associated with depriving a parent of that right without any determination that he or she is unfit, as the one-parent doctrine allows. The one-parent doctrine is therefore unconstitutional and In re CR is overruled. 

5. Laird’s current incarceration for violating federal drug-trafficking laws did not render his complaint moot. Incarcerated parents can exercise the constitutional right to direct the care of their children while incarcerated, and Laird had tried to do just that, requesting several times during the proceedings below that the children be placed with their parental grandmother. As long as the children are provided adequate care, state interference with those decisions is not warranted.