Not Allowed to Testify

January 23, 2019 § Leave a comment

We visited the Sheridan v. Cassidy COA case yesterday, in which the court affirmed a chancellor’s decision not to allow the testimony of a twelve-year-old boy to testify as to his preference. There was a dissent.

In the same case, the chancellor also refused to allow either the twelve-year-old son or his eight-year-old sister to testify. The COA affirmed:

¶24. Farra also contends that the chancellor erred in summarily excluding testimony from the twelve-year-old son and the ten-year-old daughter. Farra argues that the chancellor was required to conduct a hearing pursuant to Jethrow v. Jethrow, 571 So. 2d 270 (Miss. 1990). In Jethrow, the supreme court stated that “there can be no per se prohibition against a child witness testifying in a divorce case between his parents.” Id. at 273. There, the mother wanted to call the parties’ eight-year-old child “as a witness to testify to acts of violence against her by [the father],” but the chancellor refused. Id. at 271. The supreme court reversed, concluding that certain procedures should be followed in deciding whether to
exclude “the testimony of a child witness of tender years in a divorce proceeding.” Id. at 273. First, determine if the child is competent to testify and second, determine whether it is in the child’s best interests to testify. Id. at 273-74.

¶25. Here, the chancellor did not conduct a Jethrow hearing, and neither party requested one. The chancellor did state that it was not in the children’s best interest to testify because he thought pitting the children against the parents would be detrimental to the children. He stated, “That is not fair. This is not their fight, they didn’t start it. They didn’t cause the divorce, they are the victims of it.” The chancellor further expressed his opinion that the children had been coached, so any testimony would be unhelpful. In this instance, we find no abuse of discretion by the chancellor.

If the law is that “there can be no per se prohibition against a child testifying,” then it would seem that the only way to document a refusal to allow it would be to conduct a Jethrow examination. For my part, I seldom do that with children who are in their late teens unless there is obvious immaturity, or some condition such as autism or low intelligence, or obvious intimidation. I would almost certainly conduct a Jethrow examination with an eight year old, but whether to do so with a twelve year old would depend on my assessment of the child’s maturity and mental and emotional health. If a party specifically requests a Jethrow examination, I would likely do it.

One caution: Notice that the COA pointed out that no party had requested a Jethrow exam, and then went on to uphold the judge’s findings without it. That signals to me that, if you do not request the Jethrow exam, you may well be stuck with whatever the judge’s conclusions are about whether the child or children should testify.

Not Allowed to State a Preference

January 22, 2019 § Leave a comment

Most chancellors do not like having the children testify in litigation between the parents. Among other objectionable things, it subjects them to stresses that they are often too young to bear, it forces them to choose sides, and it subjects them to a tug-of-war between the parents.

In the modification case between Farra Sheridan and her ex-husband, James Cassidy, Farra wanted to call her twelve-year-old son as a witness to state his preference, and both he and his eight-year-old sister on the merits, but the chancellor refused, stating that he believed the children had been coached and that pitting the children would not be in their best interest. He said, “That is not fair. This is not their fight, they didn’t start it. They didn’t start the divorce. they are victims of it.” Farra appealed.

In Sheridan v. Cassidy, handed down December 11, 2018, the COA affirmed. On the issue of the preference testimony of the 12-year-old, Chief Judge Lee’s majority opinion read:

¶21. Farra argues that the chancellor committed reversible error by refusing to allow her twelve-year-old son to state a preference. Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-11-65(1)(a) (Rev. 2013) provides that a child’s preference may be taken into account in determining child custody:

[I]f the court shall find that both parties are fit and proper persons to have custody of the children, and that either party is able to adequately provide for the care and maintenance of the children, the chancellor may consider the preference of a child of twelve (12) years of age or older as to the parent with whom the child would prefer to live in determining what would be in the best interest and welfare of the child. The chancellor shall place on the record the reason or reasons for which the award of custody was made and explain in detail why the wishes of any child were or were not honored.

(Emphasis added). “[T]he chancellor is not bound by the election of a minor child.” Floyd [v. Floyd], 949 So. 2d [26] at 30 (¶12) [(Miss. 2007)]. But, if a chancellor declines to follow a child’s preference, he must place the reasons in the record. Id.

¶22. During the hearing, Farra asked that the twelve year old be allowed to state his preference. The chancellor declined this request, stating that based upon prior testimony, he believed the child had been coached by Farra. The chancellor allowed Farra to make a proffer regarding the twelve year old’s testimony. The proffer was as follows:

The twelve year old loves his father, loves his mother, would love to spend time with his father. Would prefer to be in Arkansas where he has friends, where he has extended family, where he likes to do things in Arkansas in the proximity to other places that they can go in Arkansas, outside of Benton, Little Rock, etc. And all of the things that are available there that are not in Oxford. . . . He seems to think that there is a lot of stuff to do around Arkansas that is not available here.

¶23. In his Albright analysis, the chancellor stated that he did not allow the child to testify because he had concerns that Farra had coached the child on what to say. The chancellor further stated that although this child wanted to live with Farra (based upon the proffer), “the preference of the child in this situation [did] not have much bearing on the Court with all of the factors that I have gone over thus far.” Considering that the majority of the Albright factors favored James, we find no abuse of discretion in this instance. This issue is without merit.

Affirmed on that point by the majority, but Carlton dissented, joined by Griffis and Fair, and Tindell in part:

¶27. I respectfully dissent. The chancellor abused his discretion in failing to allow the twelve-year-old son to testify regarding his preference as to custody. Anderson v. Anderson, 961 So. 2d 55, 59-60 (¶¶7-12) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007). In Anderson, this Court found that the chancery court abused its discretion in a child custody modification hearing when the chancellor failed to allow the children to testify as to their custodial preference, effectively preventing the mother from presenting her case-in-chief prior to the court entertaining the father’s motion for an involuntary dismissal under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b). Id.

¶28. Similarly, the chancellor’s failure to hear the testimony of the twelve-year-old child in this case not only prevented him from expressing his custodial preference, but also denied Farra the right to present her child as a witness regarding a material change in circumstances. I recognize that the version of section 93-11-65 in effect at the time Anderson was decided has since been revised to slightly weaken the child’s right to choose his custodial parent. [Fn 3] Relevant here, however, is that under either version of the statute, and under the applicable case law, a parent is entitled to present a child’s testimony regarding parental preference for custody in order to demonstrate a material change in circumstances. Anderson, 961 So. 2d at 59-60 (¶¶7-12); see also Boyd v. Boyd, 83 So. 3d 409, 418 (¶29) (Miss. Ct. App. 2011) (mother allowed to present daughter’s preference testimony).

[Fn 3] In Anderson, section 93-11-65 (Rev. 2004) provided that “any . . . child who shall have reached his twelfth birthday shall have the privilege of choosing the parent with whom he shall live.” (Emphasis added). The current statute, also in effect at the 2016 child custody modification hearing in this case, provides that if the chancellor finds the two parties fit and proper, then “the chancellor may consider the preference of a child of twelve . . . years of age or older as to the parent with whom the child would prefer to live in determining what would be in the best interest and welfare of the child.” Miss. Code Ann. § 93-11-65 (Rev. 2013)(emphasis added). The statute further provides that “[t]he chancellor shall place on the record the reason or reasons for which the award of custody was made and explain in detail why the wishes of any child were or were not honored.” Id.

¶29. In short, although under section 93-11-65 the chancellor does not have to honor the twelve-year-old child’s preference, see, e.g., Floyd, 949 So. 2d at 30 (¶12), the mother has a right to present the evidence at the custody hearing. The chancellor abused his discretion in this case by declining Farra’s request to present her twelve-year-old son’s testimony on this issue. I maintain that this case must reversed and remanded due to the chancellor’s abuse of discretion in refusing to allow the twelve-year-old son to state his preference on the record.

Here, because “a majority of the Albright factors favored” the father, the majority found no error.” That won’t always be the case, however. It’s not a good idea for a judge to curtail a party’s proof without overwhelming justification. I think this was a borderline situation; the judge found the child’s credibility dubious and did not believe it was in the child’s best interest to testify.

My opinion is that a Jethrow examination substantiating those conclusions would have made the judge’s ruling airtight.

And what about the judge’s ruling that the two children were not allowed to testify on the merits? You’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

The Right to Confrontation

November 6, 2017 § Leave a comment

I posted here previously about the case of Miller v. Smith, in which the COA had ruled that there was no error when the chancellor excluded the parents from the courtroom during a child’s testimony in a child-custody case. Here is a link to my post.

The MSSC reversed the COA in the latest version of Miller v. Smith, decided October 26, 2017. Here is what Chief Justice Waller wrote for the court on the point:

¶19. The issue regarding Miller’s removal from the courtroom during the testimony of Kristen had relevance only while an issue existed concerning the custody of Morgan. A subsequent custody ruling of the trial court has granted custody of Morgan to Miller. We address the issue, though, because of conflicts in our caselaw as discussed below. See Alford v. Miss. Div. of Medicaid, 30 So. 3d 1212, 1214 (¶ 8) (Miss. 2010) (issue not moot if question concerns a matter “detrimental to the public interest that there should be a failure by the dismissal to declare and enforce a rule for future conduct.”) (citation omitted).

The Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment

¶20. Miller argues the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment applies in this case, even though it is a civil case. By its own language, the Confrontation Clause extends only to criminal cases. U.S. Const. amend. VI (“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to be confronted with witnesses against him . . . .”) (emphasis added); Hannah v. Larche, 363 U.S. 420, 440, 80 S. Ct. 1502, 1513, 4 L. Ed. 2d 1307 n.16 (1960) (“[The Sixth] Amendment is specifically limited to ‘criminal prosecutions’ . . . .”). As the Court of Appeals correctly observed, “The Confrontation Clause only applies to criminal cases. . . . So [Miller’s] first argument fails.” Miller [v. Smith], 2016 WL 6876509, at *3 (¶ 17) [(Miss. Ct. App. Nov. 22, 2016)].

¶21. According to Miller, the Court of Appeals’ decision is contrary to this Court’s precedent. To support his argument, Miller relies on In Interest of C.B., where we held “[t]his is not a criminal case, but we are of the opinion that the right of confrontation should be accorded to an accused parent in” youth-court cases. In Interest of C.B., 574 So. 2d 1369, 1374 (Miss. 1990). [Fn omitted] In a recent concurrence, though, Justice Beam wrote that our statement in In Interest of C.B. “was nonauthoritative dicta.” In re J.T., 188 So. 3d 1192, 1205 (¶ 71) (Miss. 2016) (Beam, J., concurring in part and result).

¶22. This Court cannot ignore the plain language of the Sixth Amendment, which limits its own application to “criminal prosecutions.” To the extent we held in the case of In Interest of C.B., 574 So. 2d at 1374, that the Sixth Amendment applies in civil proceedings, today we overrule it.

Article 3, Section 25 of the Mississippi Constitution

¶23. Miller argues his removal from the courtroom violated Article 3, Section 25 of the Mississippi Constitution. “No person shall be debarred from prosecuting or defending any civil cause for or against him or herself . . . by him or herself, or counsel, or both.” Miss. Const., art. 3, § 25. The Court of Appeals rejected Miller’s argument, finding no violation “[b]ecause [Miller’s] counsel was present during Kristen’s testimony . . . .” Miller, 2016 WL 6876509, at *4. However, the provision prohibits debarment of the individual “by him or herself.” Miss. Const. art. 3, § 25. The presence of Miller’s counsel did not cure the error that Miller, individually, was removed from the courtroom. As a result, a violation of Article 3, Section 25 occurred.

Harmless-Error Analysis

¶24. While the removal of Miller was error, the issue may be reviewed under harmless error analysis. Smith v. State, 986 So. 2d 290, 300 (¶ 30) (Miss. 2008); see also United States v. Pryor, 483 F.3d 309, 312 (5th Cir. 2007).

¶25. First and foremost, while Miller was absent, his attorney was present during the entire questioning. And Miller fails to explain how the examination would have changed had he been present alongside his attorney. See Jones v. State, 912 So. 2d 973, 977 (¶ 16) (Miss. 2005) (“Assertions of error without prejudice do not trigger reversal.”).

¶26. While a Sixth Amendment case, the decision in Rollins v. State is instructive on the issue of removing a defendant from the courtroom. Rollins v. State, 970 So. 2d 716 (Miss. 2007). In Rollins, the grand jury returned a multicount indictment charging the defendant with crimes related to sexual battery of children. Id. at 717 (¶ 2). The trial court allowed the children to testify through closed-circuit television. Id. at 717 (¶ 3). The defendant was removed from the courtroom to watch the television screen alone. Id. at 719 (¶ 5). However, technical difficulties arose, and the defendant was unable to view the witnesses on the screen. Id. at 721 (¶ 11). Because of the inability to see the witnesses and view their demeanor, the defendant raised confrontation issues, claiming a violation of his right required reversal. Id. at 722 (¶ 13). However, this Court held, “in order to receive a new trial, [the defendant] must show the denial of his right to view the demeanor of the minor witnesses prejudiced him.” Id. The Court continued: “[S]ince [the defendant] does not argue that he was prejudiced or demonstrate how he was prejudiced, this argument is without merit.” Id.

¶27. This Court finds that the same reasoning in the Sixth Amendment cases of Jones and Rollins should apply to Miller’s objections under Article 3, Section 25 of the Mississippi Constitution. Smith [sic] must show how he was prejudiced by the procedure used by the trial court. See Goins v. State, 155 Miss. 662, 124 So. 785, 786 (1929) (holding a constitutional error “did not require a reversal, because it did not result in any injury to the defendant . . . .”).

¶28. The trial court should have provided a mechanism, such as closed-circuit TV, for Miller to observe witness testimony when he was removed from the courtroom. However, as the U.S. Supreme Court has held, “most constitutional errors can be harmless.” Neder v. United States, 527 U.S. 1, 8, 119 S. Ct. 1827, 1833, 144 L. Ed. 2d 35 (1999) (quoting Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 306, 111 S. Ct. 1246, 1263, 113 L. Ed. 2d 302
(1991)). We hold that, due to the lack of prejudice to Miller, Miller’s erroneous removal was harmless.

So, Article 3, Section 25 of the Mississippi Constitution requires that the parents, in cases such as this, be provided with means such as closed-circuit tv to observe the testimony of the child(ren) if the court decides that it is not in the child’s best interest for the parents to be present during the testimony. I imagine the 21st century equivalents FaceTime and Skype would suffice.

If your client is excluded over your objection, be prepared to explain how it prejudiced your client.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with child testimony at The Better Chancery Practice Blog.