Splitting the Baby

December 10, 2014 § 1 Comment

It is fundamental that a judgment rendered by a court without subject matter jurisdiction is void. Not voidable, but void ab initio. Therefore, it is critical for a court to ensure that it has subject matter jurisdiction before it proceeds to final judgment.

The MSSC confronted this principle in the case of Bronk v. Hobson, handed down December 4, 2014, in which the court was called upon to decide whether, in 1999, the County Court had jurisdiction to award custody in a paternity action. In a 5-4 decision the court ruled that county courts did not have such jurisdiction in 1999, and that, therefore, the 1999 judgment awarding custody was void.

Before going further, I have to note that the MSSC’s ruling directed that the case be transferred to Chancery Court. Since this is a Lauderdale County case, the court’s holding might result in the case being assigned to me, so I am limiting my comments to the jurisdictional questions in child custody cases in general, and am making no comment on the merits of the custody case between these parties in particular.

Chancery court jurisdiction is created by the Mississippi Constitution, which vests “full jurisdiction” over minor’s business in chancery courts. County court jurisdiction is created by MCA 9-9-21, which vests the county courts with ” … jurisdiction concurrent with … chancery courts in all matters of … equity wherein the amount of value of the thing in controversy is $200,000 or less … ”

The majority in Bronk decided that county court jurisdiction derived from 9-9-21 rests on matters only for which the value can be quantified in terms of dollars. The value of child custody matters can not be determined monetarily, so county court lacks jurisdiction.

The dissent took the opposite tack, arguing that since the value of child custody is not quantifiable, it is zero, which is less than $200,000, and, therefore, is within county court jurisdiction.

As between the two radically different approaches, the majority actually represents the reality of how county courts have traditionally exercised jurisdiction in equity matters. That’s because there are two sources of county court jurisdiction: one is 9-9-21; the other is specific grants of jurisdiction such as the statute authorizing county courts to adjudicate paternity and its 2013 amendment that conferred jurisdiction on county courts ” … for the enforcement of orders awarding custody … ” in paternity matters. In my experience, county courts have limited their exercise of concurrent equity jurisdiction to matters specifically granted by statute. That’s why you don’t see divorces being granted, or adverse possession being decreed, or estates and guardianships being administered, in county court. Thus, by practice, 9-9-21 has not been applied as a blanket grant of concurrent jurisdiction with chancery court.

The practice reflects the legislature’s approach. If the legislature had intended 9-9-21 to be a sweeping grant of co-jurisdiction with chancery court in all matters without regard to money value, then why did the legislature go to the trouble to amend the paternity statute to grant jurisdiction to county courts over what had been up to that point a purely chancery matter? If 9-9-21 were authority enough, then the statute was unnecessary. The same holds true with the 2013 amendment. I think the answer is that county court is purely a creature of statute, and its jurisdiction, which is not constitutionally derived, as is chancery’s, must be defined by the legislature. The legislature recognizes this, and defines that concurrent jurisdiction by express and specific statutory grants.

A legitimate concern of the MSSC is to construe legislation in such a way as to clarify the law so as to eliminate uncertainty and ambiguity. In my opinion, the majority and dissent in Bronk lead to different results in this regard.

  • The majority opinion in Bronk makes it clear that county courts lacked jurisdiction over child custody in paternity actions before the 2013 amendment. It offers the clarification that county court’s concurrent jurisdiction is limited to matters that can be monetarily quantified.
  • The dissent opens the door to the possibility that any chancery matter can be brought in chancery or county court, since it says that adjudications like custody determination are within the county court’s $200,000 limit. The dissent does not limit its scope to custody solely to paternity actions. Any matter that can not be quantified would fall within the $200,000 limit. That would, in essence, extend county court jurisdiction to all other chancery matters, because almost all chancery relief can not be calculated in terms of dollars. True, monetary relief is granted in chancery, but much of the relief has no dollar value. What, for instance, is the exact dollar value of the grant of a divorce, or an adoption, or the determination of a landline dispute, or confirmation of title, or adverse possession, or confirmation of title, or a guardianship of the person only, or a determination of heirship, or grandparent visitation, or a mental or drug commitment? And these are but a few examples. How do we determine their value so as to make that subject-matter-jurisdiction determination? Is each case evaluated separately? To open that door would be to create the possibility of endless arguments over jurisdictional limits and which court is most appropriate. It would encourage forum shopping. It would create uncertainty and embed questions about subject matter jurisdiction in every case, increasing the numbers of appeals. None of these type cases have ever, to my knowledge been heard in county court. We have to ask ourselves whether all of these kinds of cases should be brought in county court I the first place? Is that what is best for litigants? Our court system has never operated that way in my experience. And experience is a good teacher. What has worked well over time often proves to be the best approach.

The majority opinion offers more certainty as to where subject matter jurisdiction lies than does the minority. Subject matter jurisdiction should have clear and unquestionable lines drawn. Lawyers and judges should not have to guess about whether the court does or does not have jurisdiction. It does no one any good to litigate a matter only to have it set aside 15 years later — as in Bronk — for lack of jurisdiction. For that reason, the appellate courts should always lean toward what makes the jurisdictional boundaries between our courts as unquestionable and clear as possible. We already have a dichotomy of case law on the boundary between chancery and circuit that should not be further compounded with confusion between chancery and county.

Justice Waller’s separate opinion makes the practical point that it is “nonsensical and contrary to the intent” of the paternity statute for a court to be able to adjudicate paternity, and yet be unable to adjudicate custody in the same action. Yet, the MSSC already ruled out that approach in Griffith v. Pell, 881 So.2d 184, 187-188 (Miss. 2004), when it affirmed that COA’s ruling that paternity cases are not to be used as a forum for custody determinations.

Finally, I think it needs to be taken into consideration that child custody is a weighty matter. The cases  are too numerous to mention in which our appellate courts have acknowledged the complex, difficult, and close questions that chancellors must resolve in determining the issue of what is in the best interest of a child. Resolution of custody issues involves analysis of the Albright factors in original cases, analysis of material change, adverse effect, and best interest with Albright analysis in modifications, and a determination of application of the natural parent presumption in third-party custody cases. Habeas corpus, visitation, grandparental visitation, child support, and joint-custody arrangements are other matters that are affected by custody determinations. Chancellors have developed considerable expertise over the years in all of these matters, and understand how serious and life-affecting are such decisions. Why should we want to burden other courts with that responsibility when we already have a wealth of wisdom and expertise on that subject and so many others like it in our chancery courts?

It remains to be seen how the high court will interpret and apply the language of the 2013 bill granting county courts jurisdiction ” … for the enforcement of orders awarding custody … ” in paternity actions. That language is not entirely unambiguous to me. Until then, this Bronk decision is a welcome beacon of certainty for trial courts and lawyers navigating in the shoal waters of jurisdiction between the two courts.

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§ One Response to Splitting the Baby

  • thusbloggedanderson says:

    Your point about how the dissent would open the door to what I’ll call a “parade of equitables” seems to me to illustrate a recent disturbing trend for some justices to take the position that a statute is to be applied literally and any bizarre consequences are the Legislature’s fault, rather than taking the bizarre results as a hint that the Legislature had no such perverse literalism in mind. I am alarmed that this was even a close vote.

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