Ann and Chris were permanently reunited last week. The Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX) overturned a lower court decision giving custody of Ann away. But this only came after two years of exhausting and heart-rending court battles. And $250,000 in legal fees. All because an unrelated man wanted her. That’s it. Someone else wanted Chris’ daughter and they could afford to sue for it.
As we celebrate this important victory, we wonder: who else is this happening to? Thanks to thousands who took a stand, Ann will be allowed to stay with her dad. But…
…how wide-spread is this kind of issue? Are other Texas courts ignoring the rights of families and unnecessarily traumatizing children?
Far From an Anomaly
In 2019, THSC conducted a comprehensive review of the last 20 years of cases in Texas appellate courts. The results were astounding. The review found that local courts are systematically abusing the rights of Texas families, in some cases as often as 78 percent of the time.
Sadly the fate of most families rests entirely on the whims of a local judge. The shocking statistic above shows just how many judges don’t know or care about the constitutional protections for families. Unless families have hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of life to dedicate to appealing, they’re stuck with the local judge’s ruling.
The fight for Texas families isn’t over.
Chris’s and Ann’s case reminds me of Jim and Maddie Loose. Maddie, was unjustly taken from her dad. For 3 years, she was separated from her dad on a “temporary order” by a lower court.
Jim spent his entire savings to pay legal fees, declared bankruptcy, and began representing himself in court. Finally he called on THSC. With the support of Texas families, THSC intervened and spent an additional quarter of a million dollars. Maddie was finally reunited with her dad.
To add insult to injury, the judge in Jim’s case ordered him to pay $150,000 of legal fees for the other side, even though Jim won the case.
Situations like Jim’s and Maddie’s have to be stopped.
The Law is Clear but Justice Is Expensive
The SCOTX ruled unanimously in favor of Chris and Ann. The issue was so clear that all nine justices on the SCOTX agreed, a rare occurrence.
The most striking thing about this result is that the ruling from the high court followed bad decisions from both the district court and the Fort Worth Court of Appeals.
These errors in the lower courts were not because the law was unsettled. To the contrary, 100 years of case law from the United States Supreme Court and the SCOTX made it clear that parents have a constitutional right to raise their own children.
According to the annual report released by the Office of Court Administration, 45 percent of civil cases in Texas are family law cases. In at least 40 percent of those cases, one or more parties are representing themselves without legal counsel.
The situation is bleak for these families. Family law in Texas is complex and the stakes could not be higher.
Our children hang in the balance. Chris and Ann’s case illustrates this point more clearly than anything else could.
Rules are clear for any judge or attorney who bothers to read the case law on the subject. However, most attorneys and judges don’t. It is extremely long. Instead, judges look to the Texas law (“Texas Family-Code”) and stop there. Unfortunately, it doesn’t reflect many of the protections for families found in constitutional case-law.
For years, THSC’s members have advocated for changing the Texas law to include the constitutional protections for families. Had the Texas legislature passed those reforms, Chris and Ann could have been spared enormous trauma.
This triumph at the SCOTX is a landmark victory. The recent ruling from the high court will help protect Texas families by providing clear and recent court precedent that attorneys can use to help obtain favorable rulings from local judges. However, not everyone can afford good legal counsel and not everyone will have a judge who respects the law.
Now, the Texas legislature must take action. This decision should make a difference whether or not a family can afford massive legal fees.
Until then, we will be left wondering: what is happening to the other “Anns” we just haven’t heard of?
Together, we helped give Ann a future with her dad. Together, we will change Texas law. The lives of our children and grandchildren are worth it. Let’s be ready.