In one of the most significant rulings regarding parental rights in the state of Texas, the Texas Supreme Court unanimously established that the legal “best interest” of a child in custody cases is presumed to be with the fit parent.
“When a nonparent requests conservatorship or possession of a child, the child’s best interest is embedded with the presumption that it is the fit parent — not a court — who makes the determination whether to allow that request,” wrote Justice Jane Bland in the court’s opinion.
The case at hand involved Chris Clay, the father of a five-year-old girl named Ann — referred to under the fictional name “Abigail” in the opinion.
According to the opinion, Ann’s mother and Chris were never married but lived together for five years before separating in 2016.
A few years later, Ann’s mother became engaged but then died in a car accident in July 2018.
After the mother’s death, her parents and fiancé — referred to as Jason in the new opinion — filed challenges in court to be named joint managing conservators.
An appellate court struck down the grandparents’ request, but allowed Jason’s to continue, which the trial court granted.
Eventually, Chris brought that opinion up to the Supreme Court of Texas.
The Texan wrote an in-depth overview of the case when it was being argued before the court in April.
During that hearing, the attorney representing Jason argued that the “right of the parent” should not be prioritized over “the right of the child.”
“Those are two competing constitutional issues,” said the lawyer. “Texas Family Code says that the best interest of the child always outweighs all of those other factors.”
But Chief Justice Nathan Hecht noted in response that the opposing view is that “the best interest of the child is in being cared for by the fit parent.”
Several organizations, including the Texas Home School Coalition (THSC) and the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) filed amicus briefs in support of Chris.
Ultimately, the court agreed with their view that prioritizes parental rights in determining a child’s best interest.
“[W]hen nonparents seek court-ordered custody of a child subject to an existing order, under which one or both fit parents were appointed managing conservators, that parent or parents retain the presumption that protects their fundamental right to determine their child’s best interest,” wrote Bland in the opinion.
The court’s decision relied heavily on the findings of the U.S. Supreme Court in Troxel v. Granville (2000), which ruled against grandparents who were petitioning for visitation rights against their daughter-in-law’s objections.
With the ruling, the case will return to the trial court where the judge will need to make further orders in concordance with the new opinion.
“Chris and Ann’s case may be the most significant parental rights case in Texas history,” said Jeremy Newman, the director of public policy for THSC. “Had Chris and Ann lost their case, parents in Texas would have been opened up to possible lawsuits from a slew of non-parents.”
Andrew Brown, the senior fellow of child and family policy at TPPF, similarly lauded the court for its decision.
“Today’s decision is a decisive victory for the fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing of their children free from outside interference. The Texas Supreme Court affirmed that it is a fit parent, not the court, who determines what is in their child’s best interests,” said Brown.
Justice Debra Lehrmann filed a concurring opinion to Bland, noting, “while the fit-parent presumption is a pivotal part of the best-interest analysis even in the absence of a specific statutory standard, it is not absolute.”
“The question of the degree of evidence necessary to overcome the presumption that a fit parent’s decisions are in the best interest of the child when a nonparent who has acted in a parent-like role seeks visitation remains unanswered,” concluded Lehrmann.
Those unanswered questions may need to be decided one of two ways: either they could be raised in future litigation or they could be proactively addressed by the state legislature in the next session.
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Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.