Who Gets to Challenge Constitutionality?

February 11, 2019 § Leave a comment

In the divorce judgment entered between Michael and Joesie Gerty, the chancellor sua sponte declared MCA § 93-5-2 (divorce on the ground of irreconcilable differences) unconstitutional.

Michael, Joesie, and the State of Mississippi all filed R59 motions asking the court to set aside that part of her ruling because no party had pled, argued, or offered evidence on the issue. The chancellor did not change her ruling, and all three movants appealed.

In Gerty and Mississippi, ex re. Hood v. Gerty, decided December 13, 2018, the MSSC reversed on the issue of constitutionality. Justice Randolph’s opinion for a unanimous court made short work of the issue:

¶34. Few subjects in our jurisprudence are so settled as the maxim that a statute’s constitutionality will not be considered unless it has been specifically pleaded. See Martin [v. Lowery], 912 So. 2d [461] at 464-65; Lawrence Cty. Sch. Dist. v. Bowden, 912 So. 2d 898, 900 (Miss. 2005); City of Jackson v. Lakeland Lounge of Jackson, Inc., 688 So. 2d 742, 749 (Miss. 1996) (citing State ex rel. Carr v. Cabana Terrace, Inc., 247 Miss. 26, 153 So. 2d 257, 260 (1963)); see also Colburn v. State, 431 So. 2d 1111, 1114 (Miss. 1983); Witt v. Mitchell, 437 So. 2d 63, 66 (Miss. 1983).“[I]issues are framed, formed and bounded by the pleadings of the litigants. The Court is limited to the issues raised in the pleadings and proof contained in the record.” Lakeland Lounge, 688 So. 2d at 750 (emphasis removed) (internal citation omitted). A trial court may not raise a constitutional issue sua sponte. In re Estate of Miller v. Miller, 409 So. 2d 715, 718 (Miss. 1982).

¶35. The chancellor fully acknowledges that the litigants did not raise the constitutionality of Section 93-5-2 in their pleadings or proof. The chancellor’s ruling, that the statutory scheme presented by Section 93-5-2 is unconstitutional, exceeded her authority. The rule of law requires that we reverse and vacate the chancellor’s judgment declaring the statute unconstitutional and granting an irreconcilable-differences divorce.

The opinion does not describe the basis for the chancellor’s ruling of unconstitutionality. In Footnote 5, the opinion states that, “An amicus brief was filed by the Misssissippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence in support of the chancellor’s finding. The amicus called for affirming the chancellor, because the statute deprived domestic-abuse victims of constitutional rights. However, no domestic violence was pleaded or proved in this matter.”

The court reversed and remanded on other issues raised by the parties.

At ¶5, this enigmatic statement appears: “Today’s case … is unique but not unprecedented … ” It seems to me that something unique is by its nature unprecedented.

This case, involving a sua sponte unconstitutionality ruling, is not a scenario you are likely to encounter, but, as the precedent shows, it is in the realm of possibility.

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