Recently, the hashtag #LetHerStay has trended on social media sites. The case from which this hashtag stems is In re C.C., and though the case touches on some complex procedural and legal intricacies, it is, at its core, a case primarily concerned with a parent’s right to custody of their children. The Texas Supreme Court heard the parties’ oral arguments on April 22, 2020, and many people now anxiously await the final ruling in this case. We do not seek to advocate for any party in the suit in providing this case overview. Our aim is only to provide a digestible explanation of the case and the parties’ legal arguments.
The child, Ann, was born to Mr. Christopher Clay (“Father”) and Ms. Dylan Wilkes (“Mother”) in 2014. Though unmarried, the parents continued their relationship and lived together until 2016. Following their breakup later that year, Father filed a SAPCR (Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship) lawsuit. A SAPCR is a type of lawsuit that determines the rights of parents vis-à-vis their children. Pursuant to the lawsuit, Mother was designated as the primary conservator of Ann, Father was required to pay child support, and Father was given a partial custody schedule.
The next year, Mother moved in with her new boyfriend (and later fiancé), Mr. John Dumas (“Fiancé”). Court records indicate that Ann referred to Fiancé’s children as siblings and referred to Stepfather as “Pops.”
In 2018, Mother sought a modification to the original SAPCR. By that time, Mother and Fiancé were engaged to be married. A modification is a special kind of lawsuit through which, as the name implies, one party seeks to modify or change the terms of a previous order. Tragically, Mother died in a car accident before the conclusion of the modification suit and before her marriage to Fiancé. Father then sought to dismiss the modification suit and to become Ann’s sole managing conservator. The maternal grandparents filed a petition to be named joint managing conservators, and Fiancé filed a similar petition to be named joint managing conservator.
An Appellate Court blocked the grandparents’ petition but allowed Fiancé’s petition to proceed. Following the order from the appellate court, the trial court then granted Fiancé joint managing conservatorship of Ann.
Father appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals, which denied it without comment, and then Father appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.
The Parties’ Arguments
Father bases his argument on the U.S. Constitution and the Texas Family Code. Father argues that when a court places restrictions on a parent’s right to possession, the law requires the court to limit its restrictions to only those required to protect the best interest of the child, as provided in section 153.193 of the Texas Family Code. Father goes on to argue that the U.S. Constitution shields “fit” parents’ fundamental rights to make child-rearing decisions. Finally, Father turns to U.S. Supreme Court precedent to argue that the law requires courts to presume that fit parents act in the best interest of their children.
Father concludes that the trial court’s decision to grant Fiancé joint managing conservatorship over Ann was not in the best interests of the child and that, as a fit parent, Father’s decisions should be presumed to be in Ann’s best interests.
Fiancé’s counter argument has two components: (1) procedural and (2) legal. Fiancé first argues that, procedurally, Father should be prohibited from appealing to the Texas Supreme Court because he had not raised his challenges correctly. Fiancé’s legal argument addresses Father’s “fit parent” argument head on. Fiancé cites a previous decision by the Texas Supreme Court which stated that the “fit parent” presumption does not apply in modification suits.
Assuming the Texas Supreme Court decides the case on the merits and ignores the (alleged) procedural defects, the impact of its ruling in In re C.C. will likely ripple across the state’s family law bar. Regardless of how the Court rules, the case provides an excellent opportunity to settle questions surrounding the protection of constitutional rights in modification cases where the circumstances have materially and substantially changed. Check back here for updates on the case!
If you have any questions about the topics discussed in this piece, such as modifications, conservatorship or SAPCRs, please contact our offices at (512) 746-7399 to speak with one of our experienced family lawyers today.