Parental Rights of the Anonymous Sperm Donor

May 30, 2018 § 4 Comments

The law has always had to scurry along in the wake of technology, tidying up and redefining legal relationships affected by advances in science and medicine.

The latest instance arises out of the field of assisted reproductive technology, and addresses the issue of the parental rights of the anonymous sperm donor in the custody of a child born as a result of artificial insemination (AI).

Christina Strickland and Kimberly Day were married to each other in Massachusetts in 2009, and their marriage was later recognized in Mississippi, where they had taken up residence. In 2011, Kimberly was artificially inseminated and gave birth to a son, ZS. They separated in 2013, and were divorced in 2016, with custody of ZS being a contested issue. Following a hearing, the chancellor ruled that the child was born during the marriage, but that the parental rights of the natural father had not been terminated, thus precluding Christina’s claim to custody. Christina appealed.

In the case of Strickland v. Day, a case of first impression, a plurality of the MSSC held on April 5, 2018, that an anonymous sperm donor has no parental rights. Justice Ishee wrote for the plurality:

¶15. The chancery court’s decision, finding Christina not the legal parent of Z.S., turned largely on its determination that the sperm donor was the “natural father,” whose parental rights were subject to termination. On appeal, Christina argues that this finding is not supported by the evidence and is an erroneous conclusion of law. We agree.

¶16. At the outset, we are cognizant of the fact that we never before have determined what parental rights, if any, anonymous sperm donors possess in the children conceived through the use of their sperm. As such, this is an issue of first impression.

¶17. In searching our state’s existing law, the only law that even addresses AI is the disestablishment-of-paternity statute—Mississippi Code Section 93-9-10(2)(d) (Rev. 2013). And while Section 93-9-10(2)(d) does not address anonymous sperm donors’ parental rights directly, we find it useful as it illustrates the Legislature’s intent on such rights. Indeed, under Section 93-9-10(2)(d), a father cannot seek to disestablish paternity when the child was conceived by AI during the marriage to the child’s mother. Reading this provision, in light of the context before us, the logical conclusion—while not explicit—is that the Legislature never intended for an anonymous sperm donor to have parental rights in a child conceived
from his sperm—irrespective of the sex of the married couple that utilized his sperm to have that child.

¶18. How, on one hand, can the law contemplate that a donor is a legal parent who must have his rights terminated, while at the same time prohibiting the nonbiological father of a child conceived through AI from disestablishing paternity? These two policies cannot coexist. And for one to make such a logical leap effectively would say that the child has three legal parents: the mother who birthed the child, the natural father who donated his sperm, and the person who was married to the child’s mother (and is statutorily prohibited from disestablishing paternity). Three parents—that cannot be what the Legislature intended. Indeed, even the chancery court here said that cannot be possible.

¶19. In making its determination, the chancery court seemed to place great weight on the biological connection between the anonymous sperm donor and Z.S. Yet the Supreme Court of the United States has held that “[p]arental rights do not spring full-blown from the biological connection between the parent and child. They require relationships more enduring.” Lehr v. Robertson, 463 U.S. 248, 260, 103 S. Ct. 2985, 77 L. Ed. 2d 614 (1983) (quoting Cuban v. Mohammed, 441 U.S. 360, 397, 99 S. Ct. 1760, 60 L. Ed. 2d 297 (1979) (Stewart, J., dissenting)) (emphasis added). In a similar vein, we too have held that a biological connection alone is not enough to establish parentage. See Griffith v. Pell, 881 So. 2d 184, 186 (Miss. 2004) (finding that a biological father does not have any paternity rights where “he fails to establish that he has had a substantial relationship with the child”).

¶20. As a broader policy consideration, we find that requiring parents of a child conceived through the use of AI to terminate parental rights of the donor would not be in the best interest of the child—to say nothing of the expense and time it would require. When children are involved, we consistently have held that “the polestar consideration . . . is the best interest and welfare of the child.” Albright v. Albright, 437 So. 2d 1003, 1005 (Miss. 1983).

¶21. The consequences of assigning rights to donors, who do not engage in an act of procreation but provide biological material with no intention to act as a parent, would disrupt the familial relationships and expectations of Mississippians who have conceived children through the use of AI. For one, it would elevate the rights of a donor—who is a complete stranger to the child, and likely never will be identified—over the rights of a person who has known and cared for the child. Make no mistake—affirmance here arguably would impose parentage, and all its responsibilities, on anonymous sperm donors who contribute sperm to assist families in achieving pregnancy—perhaps creating a chilling effect on sperm donation. Furthermore, it effectively would leave many children conceived through this method with one legal parent. And in the tragic situation in which a mother dies during childbirth or before a proper termination proceeding—it would leave the child an orphan. Such a notion is untenable and certainly contrary to the public policy of this state.

¶22. On appeal, Kimberly’s position is that all of the nonbiological parents of children conceived through AI should be required to terminate the sperm donor’s parental rights and then establish parentage through the adoption process. We disagree. As a practical matter, the process of requiring one under these circumstances to adopt her own child (one which she intentionally agreed to bring into the family) would be intrusive, time-consuming, and expensive. In fact, it would require: parents who use AI with anonymous sperm donation to file a petition and wait thirty days to seek a hearing; a guardian ad litem to be appointed by the court at the parents’ expense; and a hearing to be held to determine whether an
unknowable sperm donor has abandoned the child. See Miss. Code Ann. § 93-15-107 (Rev. 2013).

¶23. One of the rationales behind termination statutes no doubt is to safeguard the rights of any potential parent-child relationship. Indeed, this Court has held that “[p]arents have a liberty interest, more precious than any property interest, in the care, custody, and management of their children and families.” G.Q.A. v. Harrison Cty. Dep’t Of Human Res., 771 So. 2d 331, 335 (Miss. 2000) (citing Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. at 753–54, 758–59, 102 S. Ct. 1388, 71 L. Ed. 2d 599 (1982)). The seriousness of the action is reflected in the fact that termination of such rights requires clear and convincing evidence of the statutory grounds for termination. Chism v. Bright, 152 So. 3d 318, 322 (Miss. 2014) (citing Kramer, 455 U.S. at 754).

¶24. But with anonymous sperm donors there is no reason to protect the donor, as the donor has no intention or desire to act as a father. In reaching its conclusion in this case, the chancery court found that the donor was merely an “absent father,” but in reality, the donor is a nonexistent father. For the child could never find the donor, much less have a meaningful relationship with him. It is one thing for a child to cling to the hope of a possibility of discovering and eventually building a relationship with an absent father; it is quite another thing for a child to know that he has a natural father that he has no possibility of ever discovering, let alone having a relationship with. That is, short of perhaps a court order mandating the disclosure of the donor’s identity, it is arguably factually and legally impossible for the child ever to obtain the identity of the donor.

¶25. The impracticality and futility of applying the termination statute in this context is clear. Under Section 93-15-107, the natural father is a necessary party to such termination action, but here, or with any anonymous donor, whose identification cannot be known, compliance with the statute arguably is impossible. One cannot serve a party with no information to act upon and which likely never can be acquired.

¶26. To that end, Kimberly argues that Christina, and nonbiological parents alike, can effectuate this service though publication. To be sure, the text of the statute does allow for publication of service of a “necessary party whose address is unknown after diligent search[.]” Miss. Code Ann. § 93-15-107(1)(b) (Rev. 2013) (emphasis added.) Publication in this instance is for a party whose address is unknown, not a party whose identity is
unknown. (Emphasis added). What is more, how can it be evaluated whether there was a diligent search for the party, if the party is unknown? The chancery court itself conceded that it is unlikely that the donor ever could be hailed before the court. The chancery court also conceded that this donor’s identification likely would never be known. And with an absence of identification, publication practically cannot be effectuated in every case in which a couple utilizes AI to bring a child into the family. Indeed, publication under the statute presupposes that, while one may not know the exact location of the party, one at least knows, at a minimum, the identity of the party. This is not to say that, under these circumstances, service by publication could not be accomplished; it is, however, to say that, as a matter of public policy, we find it unwise to demand that it must be accomplished.

¶27. And so, we ask, would it not be futile for the chancery court to require parties to comply with a statute the chancery court itself admits cannot be satisfied due to reasons beyond the control of the parties? Though this exact question is not before us here, we find it demonstrative of the impracticability and futility of requiring compliance with Section 93-15-107(1)(b) in this context.

¶28. Aside from our determination that anonymous sperm donors, in general, do not possess parental rights in the children conceived through the use of their sperm, we also find that there is no other vehicle which allows us to conclude that the anonymous sperm donor here is Z.S.’s parent. The donor was not married to the mother at the time of Z.S.’s conception or birth, he has not executed a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity, and he has not been adjudicated to be the child’s “natural” father under state law. Miss. Code Ann. § 93-9-28 (Rev. 2013).

¶29. In sum, we find that the chancery court erred in finding that an anonymous sperm donor was Z.S.’s parent whose parental rights had to be terminated. Indeed, we find that there is no legal or policy basis to find that an anonymous sperm donor is a parent in this specific context.

Some thoughts:

  • This decision has limited precedential value since it is a plurality decision. But a majority broadly agree that the chancellor erred in ruling that the parental rights of the sperm donor had to be terminated as a prerequisite to a custody contest between the parties, so I would surmise that future litigation over the same issue will result in an outcome similar to this.
  • Justice Waller’s separate opinion points out that the legislature needs to address this issue. He’s right, since there is no statute directly on point.
  • I am uncomfortable with the language in the opinion that talks about the impracticality of requiring process on the sperm donor. Our court should not put a price, so to speak, on due process. Notice and an opportunity to defend are required in a wide range of cases — including those involving unknown fathers — without regard to the difficulty or impracticality of process. I agree that a sperm donor should not be required to be made a party to the litigation in AI cases; however, impracticality of process would not be a component of my rationale were I called upon to decide the case.
  • What cost the plurality a majority is the plurality’s treatment of equitable estoppel in the opinion beginning at ¶30. The dissenters take the position that since the equitable estoppel issue was never squarely presented to the chancellor, it is improper to take it up on appeal. On this I agree with Justice Coleman that it was unnecessary to address it. I would have ended the opinion at ¶29.
  • I found it interesting that the fact that this case arose out of a same-gender marriage was only mentioned in passing and played no part in the ultimate outcome. That is an indication that Obergefell has been absorbed into our law.

The Three Types of Process

May 29, 2018 § Leave a comment

When most of us think about process, we think in terms of MRCP 4 process and R81 process. But, in actuality, there are three types.

Process under R4 requires an answer within thirty days or a default judgment may be entered.

Process under R81, however, requires no answer, but the defendant or respondent must appear and defend on the specified day, or a judgment may be entered against him or her. One type of R81 process requires 30 days’ notice returnable to a day certain. The other type requires a minimum of 7 days’ notice. Here are the two categories set out in R81(d):

(1) The following actions and matters shall be triable 30 days after completion of service of process in any manner other than by publication or 30 days after the first publication where process is by publication, to-wit: adoption; correction of birth certificate; alteration of name; termination of parental rights; paternity; legitimation; uniform reciprocal enforcement of support; determination of heirship; partition; probate of will in solemn form; caveat against probate of will; will contest; will construction; child custody actions; child support actions; and establishment of grandparents’ visitation.

(2) The following actions and matters shall be triable 7 days after completion of service of process in any manner other than by publication or 30 days after the first publication where process is by publication, to wit: removal of disabilities of minority; temporary relief in divorce, separate maintenance, child custody, or child support matters; modification or enforcement of custody, support, and alimony judgments; contempt; and estate matters and wards’ business in which notice is required but the time for notice is not prescribed by statute or by subparagraph (1) above.

None of the matters in bold may be taken as confessed. Proof is required. (R81(d)(3)). And that is so even though no answer is required. (R81(d)(4)).

Both types of R81 process require that “summons shall issue commanding the defendant or respondent to appear and defend at a time and place, either in term time or vacation, at which the same shall be heard.” (R81(d)(5)).

If the matter can not be heard on the date set in the process, the matter may be continued to a later date, but the continuance order must be signed by the judge on the set in the process. In this district we refer to that date as the “return day.” Each succeeding continuance order must be signed on the date to which the matter was continued. If the case is continued in this fashion no further process is required. (R81(d)(5)).

May 28, 2018 § Leave a comment

State Holiday

Courthouse closed

Reprise: Probating an Unoriginal Will

May 25, 2018 § 2 Comments

Reprise replays posts from the past that you may find useful today:

LOST WILLS

January 5, 2011 § 4 Comments

Does it ever happen to you that an heir shows up in your office and says something to the effect that “Mom says you kept the original of dad’s will. All we have is this [dogeared, coffee-stained, footprinted] copy,” and hands you a bedraggled handful of papyrus?  Well, if it hasn’t, it will.

Of course, you did not retain the original [for you younger attorneys: NEVER keep the original of your client’s will]. So what will you do with this forlorn sheaf?

You will probate it. Yes, probate it.  But it’s only a copy, you say; and the original will is required to be produced (See, MCA § 91-7-5, -7 and -31).  True.  But it is possible to probate a lost or destroyed will.

In the case of Estate of Mitchell, 623 So.2d 274, 275 (Miss. 1993), the court said:

The law regarding admission into probate of a lost will is discussed at length in Warren v. Sidney’s Estate, 183 Miss. 669, 184 So. 806 (1938). Sidney’s Estate sets forth the elements necessary to probate a copy of a lost will are: (1) the proof of the existence of the will; (2) evidence of its loss or destruction; and (3) proof of its contents. Sidney’s Estate, 183 Miss. at 675-76, 184 So. at 807. A fourth element has been added: (4) that the testator did not destroy the will with the intent to revoke it. Robert A. Weems, Wills and Estates § 7-17, p. 216 (1983). This last element, which is most central to this case, arose from the theory that when a will cannot be found following the death of a testator and it can be shown that the testator was the last person in possession of the will, there arises a rebuttable presumption of revocation.

Where a will which cannot be found following the death of the testator is shown to have been in his possession when last seen, the presumption is, in the absence of other evidence, that he destroyed it animo revocandi … 57 Am.Jur., Wills, § 551.  Adams v. Davis, 233 Miss. 228, 237, 102 So.2d 190, 193 (1958); Phinizee v. Alexander, 210 Miss. 196, 200, 49 So.2d 250, 252 (1950); Horner, Probate Prac. & Est. § 79 (4th ed.). This presumption extends to all duplicate copies, even executed duplicates. Adams, 233 Miss. at 237, 102 So.2d at 194; Phinizee, 210 Miss. at 199, 49 So.2d at 252; Horner § 79.

The proponent of the will must prove each of these elements by clear and convincing evidence. See Estate of Leggett v. Smith, 584 So.2d 400, 403 (Miss.1991); Estate of Willis v. Willis, 207 So.2d 348, 349 (Miss.1968); Adams, 233 Miss. at 237-38, 102 So.2d at 194. (“The intent to revoke must appear clearly and unequivocally.” Sidney’s Estate, 183 Miss. at 676, 184 So. at 807. “The policy of the law requires such contents to be established by the clearest, most convincing and satisfactory proof.” Robert A. Weems, Wills and Estates § 7-17, p. 216 (1983).

Your petition will have to recite on personal knowledge of the petitioner, or supported by affidavits on personal knowledge, all four of the required factors.

You should probate the lost or destroyed will in solemn form.  To do otherwise gives an unfair advantage to the proponent of the missing document.  Probate in solemn form also seals off the protests of other interested parties and, as a practical matter, takes you directly to the hearing with notice that you will likely wind up in anyway.

At hearing, you will need to prove your four elements by clear and convincing evidence.

  • Proving the existence of the will is not usually much of a problem.  You will have that copy, or, if no copy is available, someone with personal knowledge can testify that the will did exist.  MRE 1001-1008 would appear to govern the issue.  As Rule 1008 states, the issue is for the trier of fact to determine.
  • Loss of the will can be proven by testimony that the decedent kept his or her papers in a particular place and that an exhaustive search has not turned it up, or that the cabinet where the will was kept was destroyed by fire, or that it was in a repository that has now vanished.
  • The “Dead Man’s Statute” has been supplanted by MRE 803(3), so proof of its contents should not be a major obstacle, so long as there is a witness with personal knowledge.
  • And the same hearsay exception would apply to the testator’s destruction or intended revocation.

An interesting wrinkle appears in an ancient case, Vining v. Hall, 40 Miss. 83 (Miss. Err. & App. 1866), that is still good law.  In Vining, there was conflicting and inconclusive testimony about the contents of the lost or destroyed will, but no disagreement that it included a revocation clause expressly revoking all prior wills.  The court held that the revocation clause was effective despite the fact that the dispositive terms of the will could not be determined.  See, Weems, Wills and Administration of Estates in Mississippi, Third Ed., § 7.15.

Coming Soon: No Estate Necessary for Most Wrongful Death Actions

May 23, 2018 § 1 Comment

House Bill 1091, which has been signed by the Governor and takes effect July 1, 2018, amends the wrongful death statute (MCA § 11-7-13) as follows:

Any widow, husband, child, father, mother, sister or brother of the deceased or unborn quick child, or interested party may bring an action pursuant to the provisions of this section outside an estate, regardless of whether there are real or personal assets of an estate.

That should be welcome news to you PI lawyers out there who would prefer to take blood thinners and then dive into a swimming pool full of hungry leeches rather than have to deal with a chancellor.

It is equally welcome news to us chancellors who too often wind up having to chase PI lawyers all over kingdom come to try to get them to tend to their usually delinquent probate matters.

Answers to RFA’s

May 22, 2018 § 6 Comments

MRCP 36 Requests for Admission are quite useful in domestic litigation. Following is the language of the rule dealing with answers, annotated with my comments:

“(a) … The matter is admitted unless, within thirty days after service of the request, or within such shorter or longer time as the court may allow, the party to whom the request is directed serves upon the party requesting the admission a written answer or objection addressed to the matter, signed by the party or by his attorney, but, unless the court shortens the time, a defendant shall not be required to serve answers or objections before the expiration of forty-five days after service of the summons upon him. If objection is made, the reasons therefor shall be stated.”

CommentSubject to the language below in Paragraph b, you have to get your response filed within 30 days. The rule says that the attorney can sign for the client, but I don’t recommend that because often the answering party is literally stuck with and by the response. When the client signs it’s hard for him to maintain later that he never intended to admit that fact. Note that the reasons for an objection must be stated; remember that you and your client are bound by what you state. If you don’t assign a particular reason, you likely have waived it, subject to Paragraph b.

“The answer shall specifically deny the matter or set forth in detail the reasons why the answering party cannot truthfully admit or deny the matter.”

Comment: I suggest that you repeat the language of the request in the denial so that there is no doubt as to what is admitted (e.g., “Defendant admits that he was at the home of Francine Jones at 3 a.m. on June 9, 2017” rather than “Admitted.” This may sound fussy, but unless you can give me a persuasive reason not to do it my way, I stand my ground.

“A denial shall fairly meet the substance of the requested admission, and when good faith requires that a party qualify his answer or deny only a part of the matter of which an admission is requested, he shall specify so much of it as is true and qualify or deny the remainder.”

Comment: Here is where the advice immediately above becomes clear. By saying only “denied,” in the above example, you are denying every word. But the answer, “Defendant denies that he was at the home of Francine Jones at 3 a.m. on June 9, 2017” leaves no doubt whatsoever what exactly he is denying. And that is what the rule requires. The rule also clearly requires that if you are admitting in part and denying in part you have to specify (e.g., “Defendant admits that he was at the home of Francine Jones, but denies that he was at the home of Francine Jones at 3 a.m. on June 9, 2017”).

“An answering party may not give lack of information or knowledge as a reason for failure to admit or deny unless he states that he has made reasonable inquiry and that the information known or readily obtainable by him is insufficient to enable him to admit or deny.”

Comment:  This requirement is seldom met, in my experience. If you are going to seek refuge behind lack of information, you are going to have to take a further step and make reasonable inquiry to obtain that information. Only after making “reasonable inquiry” may you then state that the information known or readily obtainable is insufficient to enable an admission or denial complying with the rule. The requirement of reasonable inquiry is a good reason always to require your client to sign the responses. Oh, and keep in mind that your failure to answer with the reasonable inquiry language may provoke a motion to take the matter as admitted, which means that you will have an uphill climb to convince the judge to let you amend, as provided in Paragraph b.

“A party who considers that a matter of which an admission has been requested presents a genuine issue for trial may not, on that ground alone, object to the request; he may, subject to Rule 37(c), deny the matter or set forth reasons why he cannot admit or deny it.”

Comment:  No matter how inane the request, you have to answer the substance of the request. It’s never adequate to respond like “This is a modification action, after all, and adverse effect on the child has been pled.”

“The party who has requested the admissions may move to determine the sufficiency of the answers or objections. Unless the court determines that an objection is justified, it shall order that an answer be served.”

Comment:  If the court determines that an objection is unjustified, then it must order than an answer be served. You get another shot at an answer. This is why an objection is better than an unresponsive answer.

“If the court determines that an answer does not comply with the requirements of this section, it may order either that the matter is admitted or that an amended answer be served.”

Comment:  Here is where your chickens come home to roost if you don’t properly answer with “reasonable inquiry” or make some kind of unresponsive answer. You run the risk that the judge will merely order that the matter be taken as admitted. There are no factors for the judge to apply; it’s within the judge’s discretion whether to order that it be taken as admitted or that you may file an amended answer.

“The court may, in lieu of these orders, determine that final disposition of the request be made at a pre-trial conference or at a designated time prior to trial. Rule 37(a)(4) applies to the award of expenses incurred in relation to the motion.”

Comment:  Self-explanatory.

“(b) Effect of Admission. Any matter admitted under this rule is conclusively established unless the court on motion permits withdrawal or amendment of the admission.”

Comment:  Conclusively established means exactly that. “Any admission that is not amended or withdrawn cannot be rebutted by contrary testimony or ignored by the court even if the party against whom it is directed offers more credible evidence.” DeBlanc v. Stancil, 814 So. 2d 796, 801 (Miss. 2002).

“Subject to the provisions governing amendment of a pre-trial order, the court may permit withdrawal or amendment when the presentation of the merits of the action will be subserved thereby and the party who obtained the admission fails to satisfy the court that withdrawal or amendment will prejudice him in maintaining his action or defense on the merits.”

Comment:  Although the rule appears to provide that you will be allowed to amend or withdraw a response if you can show (a) that presentation of the merits will be subserved, and (b) the other side can not show prejudice, the MSSC has held that the trial court “may,” but is not required, to consider the two prongs of the rule in denying a motion to withdraw or amend. Young v. Smith, 67 So. 3d 732, 740 (Miss. 2011).

“Any admission made by a party under this rule is for the purpose of the pending action only and is not an admission by him for any other purpose nor may it be used against him in any other proceeding.”

Comment:  Don’t expect to use those old admissions from your opposing party’s first divorce in this second one.

No Class Actions in Mississippi

May 21, 2018 § 1 Comment

The MSSC entered an order en banc on May 17, 2018, denying a motion to adopt a class-action rule. The order, signed by Presiding Justice Randolph, reads in its entirety as follows:

Now before the en banc Court is the Motion to Amend Rule 23 of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure, filed by Richard T. Phillips.

Phillips proposed amending Rule 23 to provide a class-action procedure in Mississippi. The motion was posted for comment from May 16, 2017, to October 2, 2017. Numerous comments were filed by individuals, law firms, businesses, and organizations.

The motion was also referred to this Court’s Advisory Committee on Rules. The Committee’s minutes reflect that, after careful consideration, it voted (with one member abstaining) not to recommend adoption of the proposed amendments [sic] to Rule 23.

After due consideration, we find the motion should be denied.

The court then ordered that the motion be denied. Waller, Randolph, Coleman, Maxwell, Beam, Chamberlin, and Ishee voted to deny. Kitchens and King voted to grant.

Before I am flooded with comments along the lines of “Mississippi is the only state without a class-action rule,” and “We are out of step again,” let me point out that I am a member of the MSSC’s Advisory Committee on Rules, and have been since 2010. The committee membership includes plaintiffs’ and defense lawyers, an assistant AG, a public defender, 2 each circuit and chancery judges, a county-court judge, and an appellate judge. I am on the subcommittee that exhaustively studied the proposal, including reading scholarly articles on the subject and studies of other states’ rules. We even interviewed proponents of each side of the debate, something we have not done before during my time on the committee. The proposal was discussed in depth. The unanimous conclusion of the subcommittee (with one abstention) was that the federal Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (CAFA) has had the effect of making almost all class-action suits removable to federal court, obviating the need for a state rule. The full committee voted unanimously (with one abstention) that the proposed rule not be adopted.

 

Dispatches from the Farthest Outposts of Civilization

May 18, 2018 § Leave a comment

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What it Takes to be a Judge

May 16, 2018 § 2 Comments

In my 45 years in the legal profession, I have never seen so many contested judge races. There are eighteen chancellors retiring out of 52 total; that means we are losing 37% of our chancellors to retirement, among them some of the most experienced and wisest.

There are vacant chancery judge posts scattered around the state, and lawyers are vying to fill them. If you’re wanting to become a chancellor, you might want to give some thought not only to what are the duties of the job, but also what are some of the nuances.

Here are some of my personal, random thoughts on the role of a chancery court judge, first posted in May, 2015:

  • The judge’s first duty is to the law. The judge has to be blind to who the parties are, and to who represents them, and let the facts lead him to a decision consistent with the applicable law. That sounds obvious, but it can be difficult to do.
  • The judge has to be dispassionate, but understanding of the foibles of human nature. A wrathful judge who hurls moralistic thunderbolts at the parties is, in my opinion, an ineffective judge. It’s better to craft an effective solution to a problem than to dispense punishment with judgmental platitudes. People come to court hoping for a pragmatic, wise solution, not another layer of problems laid on by the court.
  • What lawyers and the public want most is a judge who is fair and follows the law. Fail on either count, and you fail as a judge. A chancellor can never pick a side or a conclusion and reason back through the facts and law to get to that preconceived notion. The facts and law of the case dictate a ruling, not vice versa.
  • It takes a sure, confident, competent command of the rules of evidence to be a judge. If you have tried enough cases, you know what I mean. In fact, if you have little or no trial experience, I really don’t see how you could pull off being a chancellor. Lack of evidentiary skills will show in the work product. A judge who is usually wrong in evidentiary rulings or who waffles on every ruling will lose respect of the lawyers, and probably develop a history of reversals.
  • Speaking of reversals, two things apply. One is that a consistent history of reversals is a symptom of not following the law and/or not paying attention to the facts. Two is that the chancellor must rule based on what the facts and law dictate, and never with a concern to avoid reversal.
  • Those two may sound inconsistent, but the common thread is to follow the law and to apply it appropriately to the facts in evidence.
  • The judge must always be vigilant to see that justice is done. That may require a sua sponte appointment of a GAL, or inquiring behind a PSA, or scrutinizing actions of executors, guardians, conservators, and lawyers.
  • The judge must make sure that probate matters are being handled diligently, and free of any misconduct.
  • The chancellor must not let lawyers, particularly old lions, push him or her around. The judge controls the conduct of the case, and absolutely controls the courtroom. That does not mean that the judge is a tyrant, but firm, assertive behavior is required, and when the lawyers get accustomed to it, respect ensues.
  • Ethics are critically important. Even the appearance of impropriety is forbidden. It requires a thorough knowledge and observance of the Canons of Judicial Conduct to be a successful judge.
  • One of the side-effects of ethical behavior is isolation. The old camraderie with lawyers comes to an end.
  • A crucial thing to remember is that demeanor is vitally important. A judge should be rational, wise, kind, understanding, respectful, and even-handed. A judge should try never to be impatient, rude, sarcastic, or erratic. Lawyers who appear before you are still your colleagues who deserve your respect. The lawyer you mistreat and humiliate in the courtroom may likely be your next opponent.
  • Another reason that demeanor is important is that people in the courtroom are observing you closely. There is not a judge’s frown, grimace, smile, nod, sigh, or rolling of the eyes that someone does not note.
  • One of the hardest things to do consistently is to be patient. That is not easy when a lawyer is stumbling and fumbling through some routine matter, or must be shown the proper way to handle estate matters time and again.
  • Dishonesty can never be tolerated, and must be dealt with swiftly and decisively.

Other judges may have a different take, and I welcome their input.

Contested Appellate Races

May 15, 2018 § Leave a comment

There are three contested appellate judiciary races, all for seats on the Court of Appeals.

In District 2. (Tunica, Panola, Quitman, Coahoma, Bolivar, Sunflower, Leflore, Carroll, Humphreys, Washington, Sharkey, Issaquena, Holmes, Yazoo, Warren, Claiborne, Jefferson, and parts of Tallahatchie, Panola, Grenada, Montgomery, Attala, Leake, Madison, and Hinds). Place 1 (being vacated by the retirement of Presiding Judge Tyree Irving) Eric Charles Hawkins, Ceola James, and Deborah McDonald.

In District 4. Copiah, Simpson, Adams, Wilkinson, Franklin, Amite, Lincoln, Pike, Walthall, Lawrence, Jefferson Davis, Marion, Covington, and parts of Jones and Hinds. Place 2 (being vacated by retirement of Chief Judge Joe Lee) Byron Carter, Brad Clanton, Laura McKinley Glaze, David McCarty, and Jeff Weill, Sr.

In District 5. Wayne, Lamar, Forrest, Perry, Greene, Pearl River, Stone, George, Hancock, Harrison, and Jackson. Place 1 (being vacated by the retirement of Judge Eugene L. Fair, Jr.) Anthony N. Lawrence, III and Michael W. McPhail.

Where Am I?

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