Did the Alabama Supreme Court know what it was doing when it issued this ruling? It really doesn’t matter now. With apologies to the late Roy Scheider, we’re gonna need a bigger court.
The case, Ex parte L.E.O., Case No. 1090565 (Ala. September 17, 2010), starts simply enough. That’s what’s so scary about it. Parents divorced and Mom got custody. She became friends with Ralph and Sue (my names, not theirs), who have no blood relationship to Mom, Dad, or the child. The child started spending more time with Ralph and Sue and less time with Mom. The child soon moved in with Ralph and Sue, who took care of the child without support from Mom or from Dad and almost no contact from Dad. In August 2007, Ralph and Sue asked the juvenile court to declare the child a dependent and award custody to them. Mom agreed.
It’s not clear from the opinion, but Dad apparently objected. The juvenile court ruled that the child was not a dependent (which is required for juvenile court jurisdiction) and dismissed the case. The court of appeals affirmed without opinion, with Judge Bryan dissenting on the grounds that Dad had abandoned the child.
The Supreme Court’s per curiam opinion (meaning it’s theoretically the product of all the justices rather than written by a single justice) embraced Judge Bryan’s dissent. The Supreme Court quoted the statute that defines a dependent child, Ala. Code § 12-15-102(8)a.:
(8) Dependent child. a. A child who has been adjudicated dependent by a juvenile court and is in need of care or supervision and meets any of the following circumstances:
1. Whose parent, legal guardian, legal custodian, or other custodian subjects the child or any other child in the household to abuse, as defined in subdivision (2) of Section 12-15-301 or neglect as defined in subdivision (4) of Section 12-15-301, or allows the child to be so subjected.
2. Who is without a parent, legal guardian, or legal custodian willing and able to provide for the care, support, or education of the child.
3. Whose parent, legal guardian, legal custodian, or other custodian neglects or refuses, when able to do so or when the service is offered without charge, to provide or allow medical, surgical, or other care necessary for the health or well-being of the child.
4. Whose parent, legal guardian, legal custodian, or other custodian fails, refuses, or neglects to send the child to school in accordance with the terms of the compulsory school attendance laws of this state.
5. Whose parent, legal guardian, legal custodian, or other custodian has abandoned the child, as defined in subdivision (1) of Section 12-15-301.
6. Whose parent, legal guardian, legal custodian, or other custodian is unable or unwilling to discharge his or her responsibilities to and for the child.
7. Who has been placed for care or adoption in violation of the law.
8. Who, for any other cause, is in need of the care and protection of the state.
You can plow through the first 7 factors if you want, or you can jump to the one that matters, #8, which says the child must be in need of the care and protection of the state. The juvenile court and the court of appeals had reasoned that #8 didn’t apply to this child, because Mom had made arrangements for Ralph and Sue to take care of him and they were indeed taking care of him. No need for the state to step in.
Judge Bryan and the Supreme Court reasoned that what the legislature really meant was that the care and protection must be coming from Mom or Dad:
It is a reasonable interpretation of § 12-15-1(10) to require that, in determining whether a child is “in need of care or supervision,” the juvenile court must consider whether the child is receiving adequate care and supervision from those persons legally obligated to care for and/or to supervise the child. The child is entitled to the care or supervision from those persons with the authority to take appropriate actions on behalf of the child, such as, for example, to enroll the child in school, to authorize medical care for the child, and to obtain insurance for the benefit of the child. L.E.O. at 13. Emphasis original.
With a quick bow to the ore tenus rule, the Supreme Court concluded that there was no credible evidence to support the juvenile court’s ruling and that the ore tenus rule therefore didn’t apply, and the juvenile court was “plainly and palpably wrong” in ruling that the child was not a dependent. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case to the appeals court to remand the case to the juvenile court “to make a finding of dependency and for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
Justice Murdock dissented. He argued that the Supreme Court majority “misapprehends” the meaning of that clause #8. The majority’s ruling, he said,
renders null time-honored jurisprudence that extends to well before the creation of the State Department of Human Resources and the enactment of the Alabama Juvenile Justice Act and that, until today, has served to limit the reach of the State through these mechanisms. In doing so, it sets the stage for unnecessary intrusion by the State, through the Department of Human Resources and other mechanisms of the juvenile court system, into situations where a parent has exercised his or her natural and constitutionally protected right to make appropriate arrangements for the care and supervision of his or her child when the parent is unable to provide that care and when the person with whom the parent has placed the child (who in a given case could be a grandmother or other close relative of the child) is giving the child appropriate love, care, and attention — situations in which it cannot in any sense be said that, if the State does not intervene, the child will be without appropriate care and supervision. I therefore am compelled to dissent. L.E.O. at 21-22.
Justice Murdock quoted at length from K.C.G. v. S.J.R., Case No. 2080973 (Ala Civ. App. March 26, 2010) to the effect that juvenile courts are a creature of statute with limited jurisdiction, dependent solely on a finding that the child is a dependent.
We now blur, indeed largely remove, the line between true dependency cases, which fall within the limited, exclusive jurisdiction of the juvenile court and which are governed by the statutory dependency scheme, see Ala. Code 1975, § 12-15-114 (formerly § 12-15-30) [the statute creating juvenile court jurisdiction], and mere third-party custody cases, which are governed by the standard announced in Ex parte Terry, 494 So. 2d 628 (Ala. 1986), and which fall within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court only if some other basis for juvenile-court jurisdiction exists. L.E.O. at 36-37.
Justice Murdock also argued that if the majority was correct, then that clause #8 has no meaning, and thus the majority’s ruling violates a key principle of statutory construction that every word, every clause, is presumed to mean something. Given a choice between an interpretation that gives meaning to all clauses and one that renders a clause meaningless, proper practice is to prefer the one that gives meaning to all clauses.
Ralph and Sue should have filed their petition in circuit court, Justice Murdock said, because that’s where grandparents and other interested parties have always been directed to file petitions for custody. Justice Murdock concluded:
The evidence supports the conclusion that this case is a custody dispute between a third party and a parent rather than a dependency case. Therefore, the dismissal of the case –the result reached by the juvenile court — was the correct result. As a mere custody dispute, this case fell within the general jurisdiction of the circuit court, Ala. Const. 1901, § 142(b), rather than within the limited jurisdiction of the juvenile court. L.E.O. at 46.
So does this really matter? Uh, yeah. Quoting Justice Murdock’s dissent again:
Under the new rule announced today in the main opinion, it now will be impossible to distinguish a Terry case from a dependency case. Thus, a grandparent who has been caring for a child for several years because a parent or the parents have placed the child with the grandparent to raise, will now have to file a dependency proceeding in the juvenile court, rather than a custody proceeding in the circuit court, in order to obtain a custody award to be able to enroll the child in school. This is so because under the new approach adopted by this Court today, if the parents themselves are not providing the daily, hands-on care and supervision of the child, then the child is considered “dependent” (assuming that one of the first-element categories is met). It matters not that the child is being raised in a loving home by fully able and caring relatives or friends or neighbors with whom a parent has placed the child and perhaps with whom the child has lived, as in this case, for several years; that child will now be deemed “dependent” and will be subject to the mechanisms of the Juvenile Justice Act. Even more problematic, because dependency cases are in the exclusive jurisdiction of the juvenile court, countless custody awards that have been made to nonparents will now be considered void because the circuit court lacked jurisdiction to make the award. L.E.O. at 39-40.